Death, Taxes, and a French Manicure

A Tara Holloway Novel

A Tara Holloway Novel (Volume 1)

Diane Kelly

St. Martin's Paperbacks

Death, Taxes and a French Manicure
CHAPTER ONE
Some People Just Need Shooting
When I was nine, I formed a Silly Putty pecker for my Ken doll, knowing he'd have no chance of fulfilling Barbie's needs given the permanent state of erectile dysfunction with which the toy designers at Mattel had cursed him. I knew a little more about sex than most girls, what with growing up in the country and all. The first time I saw our neighbor's Black Angus bull mount an unsuspecting heifer, my two older brothers explained it all to me.
"He's getting him some," they'd said.
"Some what?" I'd asked.
"Nooky."
We watched through the barbed-wire fence until the strange ordeal was over. Frankly, the process looked somewhat uncomfortable for the cow, who continued to chew her cud throughout the entire encounter. But when the bull dismounted, nuzzled her chin, and wandered away, I sworeI saw a smile on that cow's face and a look of quiet contentment in her eyes. She was in love.
I'd been in search of that same feeling for myself ever since.
 
My partner and I had spent the afternoon huddled at a cluttered desk in the back office of an auto parts store perusing the owner's financial records, searching for evidence of tax fraud. Yeah, you got me. I work for the IRS. Not exactly the kind of career that makes a person popular at cocktail parties. But those brave enough to get to know me learn I'm actually a nice person, fun even, and they have nothing to fear. I have better things to do than nickel-and-dime taxpayers whose worst crime was inflating the value of the Glen Campbell albums they donated to Goodwill.
"I'll be right back, Tara." My partner smoothed the front of his starched white button-down as he stood from the folding chair. Eddie Bardin was tall, lean, and African-American, but having been raised in the upper-middle-class , predominately white Dallas suburbs, he had a hard time connecting to his roots. He'd had nothing to overcome, unless you counted his affinity for Phil Collins's music, Heineken beer, and khaki chinos, tastes that he had yet to conquer. Eddie was more L.L. Bean than LL Cool J.
I nodded to Eddie and tucked an errant strand of my chestnut hair behind my ear. Turning back to the spreadsheet in front of me, I flicked aside the greasy burger and onion ring wrappers the store's owner, Jack Battaglia, had left on the desk after lunch. I couldn't make heads or tails out of the numbers on the page. Battaglia didn't know jack about keeping books and, judging from his puny salaries account, he'd been too cheap to hire a professional.
A few seconds after Eddie left the room, the door to the office banged open. Battaglia loomed in the doorway, his husky body filling the narrow space. He wore a look of purpose and his store's trademark bright green jumpsuit, the cheerful color at odds with the open box cutter clutched in his furry-knuckled fist.
"Hey!" Instinctively, I leaped from my seat, the metal chair falling over behind me and clanging to the floor.
Battaglia lunged at me. My heart whirled in my chest. There was no time to pull my gun. The best I could do was throw out my right arm to deflect his attempt to plunge the blade into my jugular. The sharp blade slid across my forearm, just above my wrist, but with so much adrenaline rocketing through my system, I felt no immediate pain. If not for the blood seeping through the sleeve of my navy nylon raid jacket, I wouldn't have even known I'd been cut. Underneath was my favorite pink silk blouse, a coup of a find on the clearance rack at Neiman Marcus Last Call, now sliced open, the blood-soaked material gaping to reveal a short but deep gash.
My jaw clamped tighter than a chastity belt on a pubescent princess. This jerk was going down.
My block had knocked him to the side. Taking advantage of our relative positioning, I threw a roundhouse kick to Battaglia's stomach, my steel-toed cherry-red Dr. Martens sinking into his soft paunch. The shoes were the perfect combination of utility and style, another great find at a two-for-one sale at the Galleria.
The kick didn't take the beer-bellied bastard out of commission, but at least it sent him backward a few feet, putting a little more distance between us. A look of surprise flashed across Battaglia's face as he stumbled backward. He clearly hadn't expected a skinny, five-foot-two-inch bookish woman to put up such a fierce fight.
Neener-neener.
He regained his footing just as I yanked my Glock from my hip holster. I pointed the gun at his face, a couple drops of blood running down my arm and dropping to the scuffed gray tile floor. "Put the box cutter down."
He stiffened, his face turning purple with fury. "Shit. IRS agents carry guns now?"
Although people were familiar with tax auditors, the concept of a special agent--a tax cop--eluded most. But we'd been busting tax cheats for decades. Heck, when no other law enforcement agency could get a charge to stick, we were the ones to finally bring down Al Capone. And if we could nab a tough guy like Capone, this pudgy twerp didn't stand a chance.
By our best estimate, Battaglia had cheated the federal government and honest Americans out of at least eighty grand and didn't seem too happy when Eddie and I'd shown up to collect. Now, with my partner on a potty break, Battaglia was treating me like I was a shrimp and he was a chef at Benihana.
The madman sneered at me, revealing teeth yellowed by age and excessive soda consumption. He waved the blade in the air. "If you shoot me, you better shoot to kill. 'Cause if you don't, I'm gonna carve you like a pumpkin."
My gunmetal-gray-blue eyes bored into Battaglia's. "Daddy had a strict rule about firearms. Anything we killed we had to eat. No amount of barbecue sauce would make a hairy guy like you palatable."
He raised the box cutter higher. Now that just burned me up. He didn't think I'd do it. He was wrong. Still, I'd only shoot as a last resort. Not because I was some kind of bleeding heart. There was just too much paperwork involved. Besides, gunplay was hell on a manicure and I'd just had my fingers freshly French-tipped yesterday.
Since threats hadn't worked, I decided to try persuasion."Look. If I shoot you, I'll have to fill out a form. I hate filling out forms."
He snorted and rolled his eyes. "You hate filling out forms and you took a job with the IRS? What are you, some kind of idiot?"
So much for my powers of persuasion. Now I was beyond burned up. Now I was hot and bothered. "Drop the box cutter, you sorry son of a bitch."
There I went again, exposing my country roots. Growing up in the rural east Texas town of Nacogdoches, I was taught how to curse a blue streak by my brothers. But now I was a sophisticated city girl living in Dallas, a member of the Junior League, and I needed to act like it. Problem was, this jerk was making it hard to remember my manners.
Battaglia lunged again, a green blubbery blur coming right at me. I ducked aside just in time to avoid being slashed again and hollered for my partner. Eddie appeared in the doorway, spotted the box cutter, and took a running leap onto Battaglia's back. Battaglia outweighed Eddie by a good hundred pounds. He managed to stay on his feet, but with Eddie riding him his focus shifted from slicing me to shreds to shedding the tall guy playing horsey with him. It was just the opportunity I needed. I took aim.
Blam!
The bullet hit the blade of the box cutter, sending it flying out of Battaglia's hand. Battaglia let out a throat-searing scream, barely audible over the ringing in my ears from the gun blast. Eddie screamed too, but I wouldn't embarrass him later by pointing it out. Eddie slid off the man's back and I slid my gun back into the holster. A foot hooked behind the ankles, an elbow jammed into the solar plexus, and the guy fell on his butt with a fwump. Ta-da!
Eddie yanked Battaglia's arms behind him and slapped cuffs onto his wrists. Click-click. After rolling Battaglia onto his side, he stood over him, his gun pointed at Battaglia's head.
I took a deep, calming breath. With Battaglia now immobilized, the adrenaline waned and the hurt kicked in full force. Yee-ow! The cut pulsed with a raw, prickly pain. I gritted my teeth and checked my manicure. My index fingernail was chipped. Damn. Should've killed the asshole when I had the chance.
Eddie must've seen me wince, because he trotted back to the tiny bathroom across the hall and returned with a stack of white paper towels from the dispenser, pressing them firmly to my forearm. A few seconds later, he lifted the towels and peeked under them. "Looks like you'll live. Besides, experiences like this build character."
As if. "Right."
Sure, Eddie talked tough, but I'd seen his face when he noticed the blood on my arm, that flash of alarm and concern. He wasn't fooling me.
Eddie jerked his head at Battaglia. "You want the honors?"
"Hell, yeah." I reached into the pocket of my raid jacket and pulled out the black wallet that held my creds. I finagled a laminated card out of the wallet--my rookie cheat sheet. Stepping directly in front of Battaglia, I read from it, making a conscious effort to control my natural Southern twang. "You have the right to remain silent."
Battaglia glared up at me from the floor. "Screw you, bitch."
"I said you have the right to remain silent." I waved the card at him. "Nowhere on here does it say you have the right to be an obnoxious dipshit."
Not only are steel-toed shoes great for kicking, they also serve as effective gag devices. When Battaglia openedhis foul mouth again, I shoved the toe of my shoe into it. The Treasury's special agent manual didn't exactly recommend this technique as standard operating procedure, but when you're in the field sometimes you have to improvise. Battaglia struggled on the floor, gagging and whipping his head from side to side in a futile attempt to dislodge the shoe wedged between his lips. I rattled off the remaining Miranda warnings, slid the card back into the wallet, and removed my shoe from Battaglia's mouth.
"Let's get him out of here." Eddie jerked the man to his feet and pushed him out the door of his office and onto the sales floor of the auto parts store. I followed, stopping briefly to wipe the saliva from the toe of my shoe with a chamois displayed at the end of aisle three. Eddie pushed Battaglia forward, his gun shoved into the man's right kidney.
We squeezed past a teenage boy wearing saggy jeans, a Nickelback concert T-shirt, and a metal hoop through his left eyebrow. He turned to us and held up a package. "This the right spark plug for a '72 El Camino?"
"Nah, kid," Battaglia said as Eddie forced him past. "You want the one on the top shelf."
A bewildered female clerk looked on as I called the U.S. Marshal's office from my cell phone and Eddie kept a gun trained on her boss, sitting against the front wall like a naughty schoolboy. After I finished the call, I stole a look under the paper towels to see if the cut on my arm had stopped bleeding. Almost.
When the marshals arrived, Eddie gave them the rundown. One of the men eyed me with something akin to hero worship. "You shot a box cutter out of his hand? Really?"
"Yep." I forced a smile. True, I was a great shot. But what wasn't great was that I'd occasion to prove it. Just because we special agents were trained to handle weaponsdidn't mean we could use them willy-nilly. Any use of force deemed excessive or unnecessary could lead to dire consequences. Reprimands. Desk jobs. Dismissal.
After the marshals hauled Battaglia away, Eddie gathered up the store's records, stuffed them into two cardboard boxes we found in the storeroom, and carried them out to my BMW. He dropped the boxes into the trunk and slammed it closed.
I put a hand on Eddie's arm. "Eddie?"
My partner glanced down at my hand, then up at me. My concerns must have been written on my face because Eddie said, "You had to use your gun, Tara. There's no way we could've wrestled the weapon out of Battaglia's hand. Not with the way he was carrying on."
"Really?"
He nodded. "Really."
I released my grip on his arm. "Thanks."
"Anytime."
It was comforting to know Eddie was on my side, sure, but his words failed to totally reassure me.
Eddie and I climbed into my car. From my purse I retrieved my sunglasses, a stylish tortoiseshell pair with silver-plated scrollwork earpieces, Brighton knockoffs. I slid them on, glancing over at Eddie. "Want to go topless?"
"Sure. We could use the fresh air." He pushed up the sleeves on his raid jacket. "Besides, I gotta work on my tan."
"Yeah, right." The guy was already the color of hot chocolate and, when he wasn't being a smart-ass, could be just as sweet.
I pushed the button to lower the Beamer's black vinyl top. The motor whirred as the top folded back, letting in the already warm early March air. In north Texas, spring starts around Valentine's Day and wraps up by Easter. Then we have eight months of summer, maybe a month each of fall and winter, and head right back into warmerweather. Not that I was complaining. The warm weather gave me plenty of opportunity to drive with the top down on my convertible Electric Red 325Ci.
On a government salary, I'd never be able to afford one of these babies brand-new. This particular car had been seized by the Treasury Department to satisfy delinquent taxes owed by some deadbeat who thought the feds wouldn't catch up with him. Surprise! His loss was my gain. I'd bought the car for a song last month when the government auctioned it off.
Eddie glanced over at me, our little moment now over, his smart-ass side back in business. "Who would have gotten this cherry car if Battaglia had managed to kill you today?"
"Shut up, Eddie."
"I'm just asking. Any chance your partner is mentioned in your will?" He cocked his head and flashed a toothy, hopeful smile.
My grip involuntarily tightened on the steering wheel. "What part of 'shut up' did you not understand?"
I knew Eddie was only trying to make light of the situation in his own goofy way, but the truth was Battaglia could have put an end to our lives today.
And it scared the hell out of me.
Sure, I could pull off the tough-chick routine, but when it really came down to it I enjoyed being alive and preferred to stay that way. A little danger kept the blood pumping, but getting killed was something I could live without. Especially when everything in my closet was so last season, nothing I wanted to be buried and spend eternity in.
I reached down to turn on the stereo, tuned it to my favorite country station, and cranked up the volume to drown out that voice in my head telling me that maybe I should prepare a will, just in case I wasn't so lucky nexttime. The voice was also warning me I'd be in big trouble once I got back to the office. I revved the engine, exited the parking lot, and headed back to headquarters.
When my boss found out I'd fired my gun, she'd kick my ass. But what can I say? Some people just need shooting.
Copyright © 2011 by Diane Kelly.