Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Book Two--Chapter 1

1

The trailer park off Harmony Road is almost completely obscured by the shopping center that had been constructed a few years before. Now, only those who already know it’s there ever spot it. I found I was spending quite a bit of time here recently.

It was five a.m. on Thursday morning, and this was my second trip to this particular trailer park this week—the third to trailer parks total. I made my way through the roundabouts then took the first right, cruising around the periphery of the park until I came to the lot I was looking for. It was a double-wide, and plain white, though someone had tried to spruce it up with pink shutters (horrendous even in the dark) and a window planter. It was late June, but the planter was empty.

Albert Dennison was out on bail and had failed to appear for his court date earlier this week. Not only did the court not appreciate that, but the bond company, which I work for, didn’t either. Now here I was, cuffs in my pocket and capture paperwork in my bag, assigned to haul his dumb ass back to jail.
Of course, I don’t do this kind of thing for free. Each skip I drag back to the pokey is worth ten percent of his or her bond. In Dennison’s case, eight hundred bucks. Bonds vary, but some capture fees are six figures. I haven’t tracked down any of those guys yet, but I’ve only been doing this four weeks.

I drove past Dennison’s mother’s trailer and made a left down the next street. I turned around in an empty driveway and parked near the corner, eyes on Dennison’s place. I’d been assigned Dennison on Tuesday. This was his third bond this year alone. He almost always skipped, but he wasn’t hard to find. He was something of a “starter” case for newbies like me. All the other guys had taken their turns, and now it was mine.

When I’d first shown up at Sideline Investigations and Bail Bonds with my toy-like badge and course certificate asking about work, Dean Amerson, the office manager, had taken one look at me and paired me up with an old school PI and skip tracker named Roger Blucher. Blue, as he was called, spent three weeks showing me the ropes. Dennison was one of my first cases working solo, assigned to me because I was lowest on the totem pole and needed the experience.

The majority of Dennison’s arrests were alcohol related. There were notes in his file about his favorite watering holes. Turned out, he wasn’t hard to find. But he was slightly more difficult to catch. He may have been a middle-aged drunk, but he was fast. Both times I’d found him, he’d bolted before I’d had a chance to put a hand on him.

I will admit a small degree of culpability in this, as I am not a runner. I don’t want to run, I don’t like to run, and I’m not any good at running. In the last six weeks, this reality had become painfully clear; I’d discovered this new job of mine involved a great deal of running.

But this job isn’t one I’m willing to walk away from. Six weeks ago, I’d been more or less fired from a string of jobs for circumstances largely outside my control. One of the most appealing aspects of my new job is that I’m something of an independent contractor; it’s much more difficult for me to be fired. Also, I’m good at this. Call it luck like my boyfriend Ellmann does, or dumb luck like Amerson does, or instinct like I do; I have an uncanny knack for finding people who don’t want to be found. Even if that sometimes means they find me.

So if I can’t run my skips down, it just means I have to outsmart them. This isn’t usually difficult. Which brings me back to sitting outside Albert Dennison’s mother’s trailer at five in the morning. If I couldn’t catch him when he ran, I had to make sure he couldn’t run.

I’d followed Dennison last night. He was on his third bar by the time I’d finally called it quits. I was betting he’d closed down whichever one he’d ended up in last and would be sleeping it off right about now. His mother was home, but from my search of the place, I knew she took sleeping pills. Plus, she was seventy. I didn’t see her posing much of a threat.

I got out of the truck, stuffing the capture paperwork into my pocket and holding a flashlight in one hand. I hustled over to Dennison’s place and bypassed the front door. The trailer had lots of windows but only two doors. I’d expected a sliding glass door off the kitchen but instead found a regular one. I went to the back and found a square shovel propped against the siding with some other yard tools. I arranged it under the door handle and reinforced the other end with a couple cinder blocks that were serving as steps. Then I returned to the front door.

When I’d searched the house, I’d also discovered a spare house key in a drawer in the kitchen. I’d pocketed it, because I’d quickly learned those things come in handy. And it did now.

I let myself in and closed the door, taking time to lock it. If Dennison slipped past me, that would buy a few seconds. Immediately, I heard snoring. I grinned; my plan was working.

I moved down the hall to the bedroom on the left I knew to be Dennison’s. As my hand twisted the knob, I felt all the little hairs on my body stand up. Something was wrong. The snoring had stopped.

Shit.

Before I could make my next move, the door at the end of the hall swung open, and I saw the business end of a double-barreled shotgun. I threw myself to the floor. An instant later, there was an enormous boom and a burst of orange light. I felt the round spray over me and heard it pepper the furniture in the living room.

As I scrambled forward, toward the shooter, I heard the pump rack the next shot. My shoulder burned in pain as I desperately charged the shooter. An instant before I closed the distance between us, I caught a glimpse of fuzzy slippers and a pink bathrobe.

Great, I thought, I’m going to get shot again by a seventy-year-old woman. I’ll never live that down.

I jumped to my feet, my left hand closing around the gun and forcing it upward, my right hand gripping the front of the pink bathrobe and pushing the woman back. The gun boomed again, this time spraying the ceiling. Then Dennison’s door crashed open.

“Let go!” the woman squawked at me, batting at me with her free hand. “Give it back! Let go!”

I tried to yank the gun from her hand, but she refused to let go, displaying unnatural strength born of confused conviction.

“Lord, forgive me,” I groaned as I let go of her robe and reached for her neck.

I closed my hand around the front of her neck, squeezing her carotid arteries closed, interrupting the blood flow to her brain. Within seconds, her obdurate grip on the gun slackened. I ripped it away and turned back in time to see Dennison fumbling at the lock on the front door.

“Stop, Albert!”

“Fuck you!” he slurred, practically clawing at the door.

I charged forward, but I heard the lock retract. That drunken bastard was a second away from slipping past me again.

In a moment of blind desperation, I hurled the shotgun at Dennison. I hadn’t been necessarily aiming, and it never crossed my mind I was giving a gun to a bad guy.

The gun flew through the air and banged into Dennison’s shoulder, knocking him off balance. He cried out in surprise and pain and went down on one knee as the door swung open. Then I was on top of him. There was a loud crash as I collided with him, and we landed in a pile on the smelly carpet.

A brief struggle ensued, in which I nearly vomited from the old beer stench clinging to him, then, after a lot of swearing and name calling, I finally got him face-down on the floor. I held his right hand behind his back as I reached into my pocket for handcuffs. Before I could get them on, there was a screech behind me.

I flung myself forward, lying flat over Dennison, as I glanced back. The old woman had grabbed up a lamp, still plugged into the wall, and chucked it at me. Clearly, she’d recovered from my assault.

The lamp jerked against the cord and crashed to the floor a foot from me, shattering. With another screech, she flung herself forward. In the faint street light pouring through the open door, I saw her face, wrinkled with age, contorted with anger and a dose of madness, her eyes black and her mouth open. She had two snaggleteeth remaining, and they just made her look that much more demented.

“Shit,” I hissed, straining to keep hold of Dennison struggling beneath me. “Lady, stop. Stop!”

To be fair, I think she was too far gone to hear me. She barreled into me. Had she weighed more than a hundred pounds, she would have knocked me over. As it was, she mostly bounced off, landing on the floor on her ass. Her spindly legs stuck out in front of her from underneath the bathrobe, which was frighteningly askew.

“Stop, now,” I said again, cinching the cuff on Dennison’s right wrist. “Just stay down.”

Her black eyes were fixed on me, and she worked to get to her feet. She seemed oblivious to the broken lamp as it cut into her legs and hands. Dennison continued to struggle, and as I finally got hold of his left wrist, he shot a glance at his mother. Even in the poor light, the blood was obvious. Dennison screamed.

“Mama!” he cried, wrenching his wrist away from me.

I groaned my annoyance and increasing desperation and flung myself forward again, pinning his face to the floor.

“Stop!” I ordered him.

I caught his wrist again and managed to get it behind him, ignoring the pain in my own shoulder. The old woman got to her knees. On all fours, she came at me again. She crashed into me and clawed at my face and neck.

I didn’t want to hurt her. Bottom line, she was old. Her body was fragile. If I threw her around like I knew I could, like I so badly wanted to, I could very easily cause serious damage, even kill her. I had enough bodies on my conscience; I didn’t want another. But that was hard to remember as I felt her talon-like nails tear into my skin.

“Mama! Mama!”

The old woman was screeching in my ear, her rancid breath hot on my cheek.

I couldn’t take any more. I threw my shoulder into her, knocking her backward.

She squealed as she fell, and Dennison howled. I roughly clamped the cuff on his wrist and squeezed, hearing the satisfying click over the racket. Then I was up.

The old woman was righting herself, ready to make another run. I wished I hadn’t left my damn cell phone in the truck. Not only did the woman need medical attention, but I thought a few cops would be useful right about now. I couldn’t remember seeing a phone when I’d been in the house the first time.

She threw herself at me again, stumbling slightly over her son as he thrashed on the floor between us. By some miracle, I managed to get a hold of her around the middle, pinning her arms to her sides. She twisted and fought against me, but she was no match. I lowered her to the floor, holding her in front of me as she fought for all she was worth, screeching all the while. I began to worry she would give herself a heart attack or a stroke. And I was seriously wondering what to do now.

When blue and red lights began to dance over the walls of the trailer, I was almost giddy with relief. A moment later, two uniformed officers came to the front door, guns drawn and flashlights on.

“Zoe? I should have known.”

The taller of the two, Derek Frye, is a patrol officer for the Fort Collins Police Department. Frye, tall and lean with dark hair and brown eyes, is a nice guy and a good cop. The shorter of the two was obviously young, with blonde hair cut in a high and tight. I’d seen him before, but I didn’t know his name.

“Hey, Frye. I’m really glad to see you.”

He pointed his flashlight at the old woman and Dennison floundering on the floor. Then he tipped his head to his partner.

“Have a look around,” he said.

The second officer moved down the hall toward the bedrooms, searching for anyone else inside.

“Neighbor called 911,” Frye said to me. “Reported gunshots.”

Frye and I went back a couple months, to shortly before my bounty-hunting days. I’d been mixed up in a big drug/murder case in which people kept trying to kill me. Incidentally, that’s also how my shoulder was injured: gunshot wound. Also, Frye’s a friend of Detective Ellmann’s. I was coming to think of him as my friend, too.

“Thank God. I wasn’t sure I could handle her on my own. Speaking of, will you call an ambulance?”

“Sure,” he said, holstering his gun. “Wanna explain things to me?”

I tipped my head at Dennison. “He’s FTA. When I came to escort him back to jail, his mother took exception. She shot at me and then attacked me. She’s not well.”

Frye looked from the old woman, still struggling in my arms, to the rest of the living room and then the ceiling. I saw him shaking his head.

“Things got a little out of hand,” I admitted.

“No shit.”

“Hey, it’s clear,” the second cop said, holstering his weapon. He glanced over to me and the old woman and chuckled. “I’ve heard about you,” he said. “Zoe Grey, right? Ellmann’s girl?” Then he laughed. “This is great.”

“Ellmann’s girl?” I repeated, looking between them. “Is that what you guys call me?” I gave Frye a pointed look.

Frye had the wisdom to look cautious and slightly embarrassed. The other guy just chuckled again and nodded.

“Yeah,” he said. “But it’s true, isn’t it?”

I sighed. I wasn’t sure how I felt about my identity as “Ellmann’s girl.” True or not.

“Whatever. Mind giving me a hand here?”

They looked at each other then back to me. After a very long minute, they stepped over Dennison and each took the old woman by an arm, easily hauling her up.

“Don’t let her go,” I said, getting to my feet, a wary eye on the woman. “Not until I’m long gone.”

Frye looked me over. “She do that to you?”

I was almost afraid to know what the damage had been. From what I could see, there was blood on my jeans and shirt, and my shirt was torn. My left cheek and the side of my neck burned where her nails had clawed me, and they felt sticky with blood. The chunks of hair that had come loose from my ponytail were stuck in it.

“Yeah.”

“You need an ambulance?”

“No. I’m fine.”

“Better take your skip and go then. We’ll stay with her until EMS gets here.”

I didn’t wait around to be told twice.

“Thanks. Appreciate it.”

I went to Dennison, grabbed an arm and his belt, and pulled him to his feet. The pain bloomed in my shoulder again, and I winced.

“Should you be working?” Frye asked, having seen my face.

“It’s been six weeks. The doctor released me.” Technically a true statement. Technically.

“He know this is what you’re doing?”

No. That was the rub. But I had sat around for as long as I was able.

“I’m fine,” I said. “Good to see you, Frye.” I looked at the other guy. “What’s your name?”

“Brooks. Jason Brooks. I just started a few weeks ago. I’ll probably see you around.” He grinned again, amused.

“Right. Well, Brooks, tread lightly.”

Confusion pinched his eyebrows together. He glanced at Frye, who gave a small nod.

I steered Dennison out the door and off the porch.



                  I parked my truck outside the physical therapy office and shot a glance at the rearview mirror. After my early morning escapade, I’d dropped Dennison off at the detention center and gone home to clean up. I had to give it to her; the crazy old bird had gotten in a few good blows.

There were twin stripes across the bottom of my left cheek and jaw and a trio along the side of my neck. They were all red and ugly, but the ones on my neck were far worse, bruised and gapping. Now I wore a white dressing over them, but that didn’t necessarily look any better.

Of course, the old woman had been treated in the emergency department and transferred to the psych hospital, so I’d definitely come out ahead. Frye had called to tell me the doctors were detaining her on a 72-hour hold. I suspected the woman had been a hamburger short of a happy meal before she’d ever met me, but the last thing my reputation needed was a rumor about how I’d driven an old woman nutty.

I gathered my long hazelnut-colored hair into a knot on top of my head and pinned back my long bangs. As summer stretched on, more streaks of red and blonde were appearing. There are also quite a few grays now, too—a parting gift from a terrible supervisor and a lousy man currently serving a prison sentence. Payback is a bitch, as they say. Whatever the colors, my hair is a hot mess as often as not. Reminiscent of a 90s-era Julia Roberts, it is thick, wavy, and has a mind of its own.

My eyes fluctuate between deep green and hazel depending on my mood, burning darker with emotion. This morning, they were hazel. I have fair skin that never tans, only burns, and freckles across my nose. I’m five eight most days, five nine on really good days, and currently only thirty-five pounds overweight. It had been more, but regular visits to the gym had helped trim down that number. Of course, getting shot really jump-started the decrease. Not that I would recommend a gunshot wound as a means of weight loss.

I was dressed in my usual uniform of jeans and a t-shirt, my newest accessory on the bench seat beside me. For the last six weeks, I’d been under strict doctor’s orders to wear a sling when up and around. For the most part, I complied, particularly in the beginning. But six weeks is a long time, and not only was the sling a hindrance, I preferred to do without the pain and stiffness caused by the prolonged immobility.

Still, I put the sling on now and got out of the truck. The physical therapy office, located in the old Women’s Clinic building on Prospect and Lemay, was hopping for nine a.m.. The place was filled with the elderly, who were all packing an assortment of equipment: wheelchairs, walkers, canes, adult children. They all stared openly at the bandage on my neck. Someone’s hearing aid was buzzing. And, as I took the only available chair, the old woman next to me let go a breezer. My eyes started watering almost immediately.

My therapist is a short white guy named Sam with a bald head who’s as bulky as a refrigerator. Despite his height, he’s a man anyone should think twice about tangling with; he could wipe the floor with a man twice his size. Sam’s in his forties and still does competitions like Ironman. And wins. He’s like our local, domestic version of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

By the time he called my name, I was certain my lips were blue from lack of oxygen. I practically ran out of the lobby.

“What happened there?” he asked, pointing at my face as he limped along beside me.

“Nothing, really,” I said with the wave of a hand. “Just a small misunderstanding.”

“That seems to happen to you a lot.”

Yes. It did.

“No crutches today?” I asked, looking down at his knee. I could see the brace under his scrub pants.

We walked through the gym and into a private exam room.

“Nope.” He grinned. “Just got cleared Wednesday.”

“That’s great. Congratulations.”

He’d messed up his knee a couple months ago and was recovering from surgery. We had this in common.

About seven weeks ago, I’d been working full time for a property management company and seen my client stabbed when I’d arrived to show her an apartment. Incidentally, this was how I met Ellmann; he’d been the lead investigator on the case. Guilt and curiosity and whatever else had driven me to start poking into things myself. I didn’t understand until too late that I‘d been poking at a hornets’ nest. And I’d gotten stung.

There were four subsequent attempts on my life. I was shot twice, once in the left shoulder and once in the right thigh. The shoulder injury is by far the worst. The bullet entered just below my collarbone and lodged against my scapula. After being surgically repaired, everything had been re-damaged in my escape when the killers had kidnapped me. The leg injury was through-and-through and left almost no lingering affects aside from matching scars on both sides of my thigh. I don’t even walk with a limp anymore.

I sat on the table and removed the sling.

“How’s the shoulder feel?”

“Better.” Truthfully, it was aching from my run-in with the Dennisons that morning.

He pulled some measuring equipment out of a drawer and walked me through a series of tests, making notes on a piece of scrap paper from his pocket. We chatted about his latest competition and my gym workout routine. He’d finished second in the St. George Ironman triathlon, and I was back to thirty minutes on the elliptical three days a week. He would have come in first had he not tripped over the runner that went down in front of him and torn several ligaments in his knee. I was considering pushing myself to forty minutes, now that my leg was healed.

Exam complete, he sat at the small desk in the corner and punched notes into my chart on the computer.

“Your strength has improved greatly,” he said. “You’re about eighty-eight percent recovered there.”

“I sense a ‘but’ coming.”

But your range of motion is less than ideal—less than what I’d expect to see at this stage. Have you been doing your home exercises?” He turned away from the computer and looked at me.

“Yes.” And it was the truth. Generally speaking, I have a hard time taking orders of any kind. But it was my shoulder in question, and since it had been compromised, I’d discovered I relied on it more than I realized. I needed it healed and dependable. Slacking on Sam’s homework wasn’t going to help me accomplish that.

“All right, good,” he said, turning back to the computer. “I’ll make some adjustments to your routine today to include more stretching and range-of-motion stuff. I also think we need a repeat MRI. I’ll call your doctor’s office when we’re through here.”

“Is my shoulder as good as it’ll get? Dr. Allen projected I would only recover eighty-five to ninety percent of my strength and function.”

Sam looked at me again. “I’m not saying that. And I’m not giving up. But I don’t want to lead you on, either. It’s been six weeks. The window for healing is closing.”

“No. I don’t accept that. It’s my shoulder. And this isn’t good enough.”

Sam smiled. “That’s the Zoe I know and love. A fighter to the end. If you’re serious, there are a couple other things you can do.” He swung around and pulled open another drawer, withdrawing two business cards. He handed them to me as he spoke. “We talked briefly about massage therapy, and I think that would help now. Particularly with range of motion. Second, you can try acupuncture. When I injured my knee, the surgeon told me I’d never race again. I couldn’t accept that, so I started doing some research. Western medicine is beginning to take a closer look at acupuncture, and it’s proving acupuncture works.” He pointed to one of the cards. “I see this woman myself. And it’s helping. I plan to compete in the world championship at the end of the year.”

Wow. I couldn’t deny that was impressive.

“I’ll call her. Thanks.”


“No problem. Now, let’s go work out, huh?”


Read chapter two.
Read chapter three.

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