Mackinnon 02 dead copy, p.1

MacKinnon 02 Dead Copy, page 1

 

MacKinnon 02 Dead Copy
 



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MacKinnon 02 Dead Copy


  Chapter One

  Answering the phone is always a crapshoot. It’s usually the electric company checking to see if I’m dead because they haven’t received a payment in two months or my mother calling to remind me that I’m on a swift approach to thirty and time’s a-wasting.

  It’s never a good call, like my dream guy ringing from the driveway or Publishers Clearing House calling to tell me they’re circling the block with a big fake check for a million dollars. Although if it was one of the guys from Publishers Clearing House, he would definitely be at the top of my Dream Guy list.

  The phone trilled again. From the foot of the bed, Marlowe growled low in his husky-mutt throat. I cracked open one eye. Family or creditor, it was clear the phone was not going to stop ringing. My answering machine was broken, so, short of faking my own kidnapping, I was going to have to answer it. Searching through the tangle of sheets, I nearly knocked Muse’s grouchy little calico butt off the bed. Jeez, what time was it anyway?

  “Sorry, cat,” I muttered, ferreting the cordless out from a pile of pillows.

  “Cauley MacKinnon,” I said into the receiver, my voice heavy with sleep and sounding a bit like Lauren Bacall.

  I waited. Nothing.

  “Hel-loooo,” I said into the silence, and there it was.

  The unmistakable sound of heavy breathing. The little hairs on the back of my neck lifted, and I blinked myself awake. I’d been getting calls like this since word got out I was testifying in the upcoming federal trial of Selena Obregon, a beautiful, blond Argentinean gang leader who looked like Grace Kelly with fangs.

  “Look, you big jerk,” I said into the phone with a mix of fear and false bravado. I was about to blast the bozo with a string of anatomically impossible suggestions when a deep voice drawled, “I need somebody dead.”

  Aha! This time it really was my dream guy.

  Grinning like an idiot, I wrapped my quilt around me and snuggled deep into my big, empty bed. “Somebody already dead, or somebody you want to get dead?” I said. Just for clarification.

  “The latter.”

  I nuzzled the phone to my ear and could practically see Special Agent Tom Logan leaning against his battered gray bureau car, looking like a tall, dark-haired, square-jawed Eagle Scout on high-octane testosterone. “Is this going to be one of those things where I have to help save the world and I get stabbed in the ass and then I don’t get to write a Pulitzer Prize-winning article when it’s all over?”

  After a long pause, he said, “Probably you won’t get stabbed again.”

  “Tom Logan, how you talk. FBI agents are so mercurial.”

  “How many FBI agents do you know?” he said.

  “Enough that you shouldn’t leave town again anytime soon.”

  I could practically hear him smile over the line, and I wondered where things stood between us. The last time I’d seen Tom Logan, he’d thoroughly inspected my tonsils at the Fourth of July picnic and then disappeared into the night to go interrogate fugitives or use thumbscrews or whatever it was FBI agents did when they were called away in the line of duty.

  “Yeah, sorry to leave in such a rush,” he said, and he sounded like he really meant it. After a short pause, he said, “I need a favor.”

  “Right now?” I rolled my head to look at the little analog clock ticking away on the antique nightstand.

  Four in the morning. It is my opinion that four o’clock should only come once a day, and it should come firmly entrenched in a happy hour.

  In his deep Fort Worth drawl, Logan said, “I need an obituary.” I frowned. “An obituary?”

  Anywhere else in the world, a request for an obituary in the middle of the night might seem crazy. But in Texas, we have a special affinity for crazy. I hear up North they lock their crazy people in the attic. Down here, we prop them up on the sofa and invite the neighbors over for iced tea. In Texas, crazy is relative.

  Rubbing my eyes, I said, “An obituary for who?”

  “I can’t get into it on the phone,” he said. “I just need to know if you can do it. If you can’t, I can get somebody else…’

  “Well, of course I can do it,” I said irritably. “Besides. How many obituary writers do you know?”

  “One is all I need,” he said, and I blinked in the darkness.

  Was Tom Logan flirting with me at four in the morning?

  “It needs to look authentic,” he went on, “with the right wording and on newspaper, printed on both sides so it looks like the real deal.

  And this has to be off the record. No files laying around. No ghost images floating in the hard drive.”

  I sighed. Not flirting. But then, that was Logan: all business.

  “Well,” I said. “The last part’s no problem. We’ve got a Dead Copy file we use to obliterate information from confidential sources. The Sentinel’s reaction to you feds tippy-toeing all over the First Amendment.”

  “We never tippy-toe,” he said, and I smiled.

  “So. Let me get this straight,” I said. “You want a fake obituary on a tear sheet?” I said, wondering how I was going to pull that off. “And when would you need this real-looking fake obituary?”

  “Now.”

  I bolted upright in bed. If Tom Logan said he needed something now, he wasn’t kidding.

  “Okay, just…give me a minute,” I said.

  Stumbling out of my old four-poster, I stepped on the sharp corner of a DVD case of The Searchers. “Ow!”

  “You okay?”

  “It’s four o’clock in the morning,” I growled, snatching up the DVD.

  Logan had given me the flick right after my house had been burgled and my movie collection trashed, probably hoping to win over another John Wayne convert. The movie wasn’t noir, my favorite, but it was pretty good if you like endings where the hero wanders off into the sunset alone.

  Which I don’t.

  But wandering off into the sunset alone is something I seemed to be doing a lot more of since I met Tom Logan.

  “Is this going to be a problem?” he said.

  “No…I’m ready, sort of…” With the phone wedged between my shoulder and ear, I tossed the DVD onto the dresser and yanked open a drawer for a pair of jeans and a tee shirt, wishing I had time to find a killer summer sweater that fit so well it would make him think twice before leaving again.

  I glanced in the mirror above the dresser and immediately wished I hadn’t. Ordinarily, no self-respecting southern girl would be caught dead going out of the house with Stage Three Bed Head. But I have found that self-respect is often highly overrated. I swiped a brush through my hair and gave up.

  “Cauley? You still there?”

  “I said I’m ready,” I huffed, juggling the phone as I hopped on one leg, wriggling into a pair of jeans. “Where do you want me to meet you?”

  “No need for that,” he said. “I’m in your driveway.”

  Chapter Two

  Tom Logan was in my driveway?

  Shit, shit, shit!

  My heart sprinted as I ran a toothbrush over my teeth, fed the cat, leashed the dog, and locked the front door of Aunt Kat’s little Lake Austin bungalow. I skipped down the porch steps to where Logan’s beat-up old bureau car was idling under the magnolia tree, headlights glowing against the warm, blue velvet sky. I couldn’t help but smile.

  The scents of fresh-cut grass and Mexican sage hung heavily in the predawn air, and I wished I’d had time to pop an antihistamine. We were well into August, that torturous stretch of heat that puts teeth on edge.

  Despite my endless-summer restlessness, getting that phone call from Logan made me happier than I’d been in a month. I stood outside Logan’s dented passenger door, waiting for him to pop the lock as the dog made
little warbling noises, leaping at the window like a hound from hell.

  The dome light in the car was out, but the stars were bright in the August sky and I’d know that dark hair and those dark eyes anywhere, even in the dead of night. Men like Special Agent Tom Logan are the reason southern women get the vapors.

  Logan grinned, his face illuminated from the blue glow of the dash lights. Leaning across the console, he opened the passenger door from the inside. “Hello, kid. Long time, no see.”

  My heart did a ridiculous little jazz riff and I felt my cheeks go red, despite the fact that it was four in the morning. He was wearing faded Levi’s and a worn, black tee shirt. Both garments bulged in all the right places.

  I slid into the tattered passenger seat after Marlowe, who was happily greeting Logan with a whole-body wag.

  I knew how the dog felt.

  Squinting at Logan, I said, “I am not a morning person.”

  “No kidding,” he said, but he was smiling, scratching the dog’s white, fuzzy muzzle as I buckled up. “You still putting him through his paces?”

  Marlowe actually belongs to Logan, although I’ve been looking after the dog since Logan got called away on a big assignment. Or the dog’s been looking after me sometimes it’s hard to tell.

  “Yeah, we do the training thing every month,” I said. “He’s great at the agility stuff, but so far the only thing I’ve seen him search and rescue is a peanut butter sandwich.”

  Logan chuckled at that and handed me a trough-sized go-cup of iced tea. “We doing this downtown?”

  I shook my head and gratefully swallowed a big gulp of undiluted caffeine. “We don’t do print or production at the Sentinel satellite, but we do have Cronkite.”

  “Cronkite?”

  “It’s a working model of an old-fashioned printing press. We use it to make mockups when kids come for Career Day and that sort of thing.”

  “Mockups?”

  “We take a stock story, plug kids’ names in, and they get to take a personalized article home. Only we try not to use obituaries.”

  “Right,” Logan said, a small streak of amusement in his voice. “You need to call anybody to make it happen?”

  I shook my head. “It’s early. The nightside crew rarely comes up front and we’ll get there before dayside gets in. That way we don’t have to explain anything.”

  Logan nodded and put the car in gear. “We’ve got to make a stop first,” he said, and turned his attention to the big white dog who was straddling the console.

  “Back,” Logan ordered, and Marlowe leapt into the back seat. Behind me, a nasally voice yelped, “What the hell? What’s with the dog? I hate dogs!”

  Startled, I jerked toward the back seat. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw a guy shielding himself from Marlowe with his forearm.

  He looked like one of those guys you see getting chased over a chain link fence in a bad episode of Cops.

  His spiky black hair looked like it’d been hijacked off a hedgehog and moussed with so much product you could bounce a quarter off of it. The sleeves of his black tee shirt were rolled up to reveal biceps that didn’t quite bulge. His features were straight and even, but there was something sort of vague about him that landed him on the ugly side of handsome. With his pointy nose and too-close eyes, he could very well have been a genetically altered weasel.

  “Who’s that?” I said to Logan, who was staring at the guy in his rearview mirror.

  “That,” he said, “would be our obituary.”

  Chapter Three

  “Wylie Ray Puckett,” the weasel said. “But everyone calls me Puck. My sister says it’s somethin’ about Shakespeare.”

  Oh, good. Shakespeare. Like a fake hit wasn’t enough drama.

  Puck lunged halfway over the front seat to shake my hand. The smell of stale beer and cheap aftershave oozed from his pores, and when he took my hand, I had to stop myself from flinching. The guy’s palm was sweaty as he leered at me in the dim light.

  Marlowe growled.

  Puck sneered at the dog, then looked me up and down through the gap in the seats. “You’re the Obituary Babe? You’re the girl who’s gonna kill me? You don’t look like an obituary writer. You look like one of those blond Gap babes on TV.”

  He seemed entirely too excited at the prospect of reading his own obituary, but I got the distinct impression that Wylie Ray Puckett was the kind of guy who inspired lots of people to want to read his obituary.

  “What kinda name is Collie, anyway? You named for a dog?”

  I narrowed my eyes. Despite his butchering my name, there was something familiar about him, something I couldn’t quite put my finger or my foot on…

  “Sit back and shut up,” Logan growled.

  “What? I’m just talkin’ to the girl,” the weasel said, but he sulked into the shadows in the back seat.

  Logan watched him in the mirror. “He’ testifying at the Obregon trial, and apparently some of his buddies in El Patron would rather he didn’t.”

  “He’s with El Patron?” I shuddered and nearly broke into a sweat. The last time I’d had a run-in with Selena Obregon and her band of South American baddies, I’d been stabbed, run into the river, and very nearly had my heart broken.

  “Puck’s their numbers guy,” Logan said. “Word on the street is there’s a hit out on him.”

  My eyebrows shot up. “That guy’s an accountant?” I said, sifting through which part of Logan’s announcement surprised me most. “An accountant who needs protection?”

  “Hey, blondie. I’m freakish good with numbers.”

  “Freakish,” I said.

  Logan shrugged and kept driving.

  Puck leaned forward. “Look, babe, I’m a real asset to this investigation. And I need protection. Those El Patron freaks FedExed me a dead canary a canary, get it? They don’t want me singing in court. They’re scared, ‘cause I know where the money is made and laid.’

  “And some of that money came up missing,” Logan said. “Seems our pal here has sticky fingers. He’s agreed to dime out his buddies for a deal.”

  “It wasn’t embezzling,” Puck grumbled. “It was an investment. I’m producing a video. It’s going to pay off in spades. They woulda got their money back and then some.”

  “How’s that working out for you?” Logan said. Puck folded his arms and sank back into the seat.

  I shook my head. “So we’re going to stage this guy’s death? Am I allowed to do this?”

  “We’ve been outsourcing some projects we get more leeway through Homeland Security. You write obituaries for a living, so it makes sense to source it out to you.

  “So, I’m like a contractor?” “Unofficially.”

  “And do I get paid?”

  Logan cleared his throat.

  “Yeah. That’s what I thought,” I said

  I couldn’t argue with his logic, but I was the tiniest bit disappointed that Logan hadn’t dropped by just to see me, even at four in the morning.

  Especially at four in the morning…

  Puck poked his head over the console. “Hey, I thought we were hittin’ Mickey D’s.”

  “The one out here’s not open yet,” Logan said. “And sit back.”

  Puck sat back in the seat. “Yeah, well, I’m hungry. I want a couple of those egg muffins. And some of those hash browns that come in the little paper things and a big ol’ thing of Diet Coke. Hey, I can hear my stomach growling back here.”

  “That’s the dog,” Logan said. “Keep it down. He hasn’t had breakfast yet

  I grinned, shaking my head. “How long have you been babysitting?”

  “Too long,” Logan said. “The sooner we get this guy dead, the sooner

  I can get back to my real caseload.”

  “Hey. I got an idea about that,” Puck said, leaning between the seats again so that his head was bobbing above the console between Logan and me. “So we’re goin’ to court, right? So we get to the courthouse, and see, I’m goin’ up the
steps to go make my statement, mindin’ my own business, and then bam!”

  He was so excited he was frothing at the mouth. I leaned forward in my seat to avoid his flinging bodily fluid.

  “These guys come out of nowhere,” he went on, clearly caught up in his own criminal genius. “They come wheeling around the corner in a big, jacked-up 4 * 4 and they just bam-ba-bam-bam-bam gun me down, but they’re really FBI guys, see? They’re shootin’ blanks! Only nobody knows it but you, me, and the Obituary Babe here. Pretty cool, huh?”

  “Sit back,” Logan said. “We’re not staging a shootout. Hits don’t go down like that.”

  “How do you know? You got statistics to back it up?” Puck grumped, sounding hurt.

  “Logan’s right,” I agreed. “Hits never go down like that. Nobody knows there’s even been a hit until the cops find a dead body in a deserted ditch in the boondocks.”

  “Oh, what d’you know, blondie?” Puck said, and I stared at him in the rearview mirror. He really did look like a weasel.

  My great aunt Kat says there are three kinds of men: the ones you play with, the ones you stay with, and the ones that just need killing.

  I hadn’t known Puck long, but I suspected he fit rather nicely into that last category.

  “My dad was on the job,” I said quietly, but Weasel didn’t know when to quit.

  “No shit?” he said. “I always wanted to be a cop. I figure I’d be a good cop. You know that show CSI? I figure it out. Every time. Way before those dickheads on the show figure it out.”

  “You know,” I said. “My dad used to say it’s better to keep your mouth shut and let everyone think you’re an idiot than to open your mouth and prove it.”

  “Hey,” Puck said. “What’s that s’posed ta mean?”

  “Sit back,” Logan said. His voice was quiet but there was iron in it.

  Puck sat back.

  We dodged in and out of traffic and for a time I sat back too, watching the sliver of moon shine down on the rolling hills of Ranch Road 2222, the live oaks cast in shades of copper and blue in the early August morning.

  Big, beautiful houses cut jagged chunks out of the limestone cliffs, a reminder of Austin’s relentless population boom. Even at that insane hour of the morning we were boxed in by traffic. The last of the big ranches were being devoured by a profusion of ever-present McMansions enormous, ostentatious homes carving their carefully fenced half-acre out of the diminishing Hill Country.

 
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