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This Is What Happens When Rednecks Have Too Much Time on Their Hands
"Damn." I dropped the phone back into its cradle on my desk. I needed help on a case, but it seemed no one was available this afternoon. I'd called every special agent in the Dallas IRS Criminal Investigations office.
Make that every special agent but one.
That one sat directly across the hall, his cowboy boots propped on his desk, his right hand rhythmically squeezing a blue stress ball as he eyed me. I sat at my desk, pretending not to notice.
Why didn't I want Nick Pratt working on this case with me? Because the guy had whiskey-colored eyes that drank a girl in, an ass you could bounce a quarter off of, and more sex appeal than George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Johnny Depp combined.
I realize these factors might all sound like reasons to want to work with him. Problem was, I was in a committed relationship with a wonderful guy and, despite that fact, wasn't entirely sure I could resist temptation.
Better not put myself to the test, right?
My usual partner, Eddie Bardin, had received an unexpected temporary promotion to acting director three weeks ago when doctors found a spot on the right lung of our boss, Lu Lobozinski. Lu had taken time off for her chemotherapy treatments and recovery, appointing Eddie to take her place until she was able to return.
Eddie's temporary promotion left me to handle a buttload of cases all on my own. And not just any old buttload, but cases that had been purposely put on the back burner for years because each case was guaranteed to be a major pain in the ass.
One of the biggest of these cases involved an eighty-three-year-old chicken rancher who'd served seven consecutive terms as president of a radical secessionist group. Another involved a popular, charismatic preacher who financed a lavish lifestyle via his congregants' tax-deductible donations to his megachurch. It was almost enough to send me back to my boring old job at the CPA firm.
But not quite.
The phone on my desk rang. The caller ID readout displayed the name N PRATT.
Dang. No way I could ignore the guy now. It would be too obvious.
I looked across the hall as I picked up the phone. Nick looked back at me, one thick brown brow raised. How the guy could look so damn sexy in a plain white dress shirt and basic tan slacks was beyond me. Maybe it was the oversized gold horseshoe-shaped belt buckle that did it, drawing attention to his nether regions like a flashing neon sign that said WANNA GET LUCKY?
"Big Bob's Bait Bucket," I said in my best Southern twang. "We got whatcha need if whatcha need is worms."
You got me. I'm a bit of a smart-ass. But I had spent two summers in high school working for Big Bob. Minimum wage plus all the free nightcrawlers I wanted. Which was none.
Nick shot me a pointed look across the hall. "Why haven't you asked me to help you?"
Because you make my girlie parts quiver in a very unprofessional manner. But I couldn't very well tell him that, now could I? Better think quick, Tara.
"You looked … um…" Gorgeous? Sexy as hell? Absolutely boinkable? I went with, "Busy."
He grinned, flashing his chipped tooth, an imperfection that somehow only added to his primal appeal. "I fake it pretty good, don't I? That's how I got fast-tracked to senior special agent."
Nick's career as a special agent with the IRS had indeed been meteoric, at least until three years ago when he'd been forced to flee the country or die at the hands of Marcos Mendoza, a violent, money-laundering tax cheat.
Luckily for Nick, Lu had later assigned me and Eddie to renew the case against Mendoza. After the creep threatened Eddie and his family, I'd smuggled Nick back into the U.S. and the two of us had brought Mendoza to his knees. Literally. Hard for the man to stay standing after I'd shot off his left testicle. I'd considered taking the gonad to a taxidermist for mounting, but I doubted my mother would let me hang it over the fireplace back home next to Dad's sixteen-point trophy buck.
Nick sat up at his desk, his expression serious now. "You gave me my life back, Tara. I'll never be too busy for you."
Nick was directly offering to help me out. No girl in her right mind could say no to that, even if she had been avoiding him. There's only so much willpower to go around.
I hung up the phone. "Saddle up, cowboy," I called across the hall as I stood and grabbed my purse. "We've got a chicken farmer to check in on."
* * *
We snagged a car from the Treasury's fleet and drove for what seemed like an eternity through flat, dry country. The radio was tuned to a country station to combat our boredom and the air conditioner turned on full blast to combat the outdoor temperature, which had topped out at 103 degrees. That's August in north Texas. Brutal.
Nick had brought his stress ball with him and manipulated it in his right hand, slowly turning it and squeezing. His movements were oddly sensual and had me wondering how his hands might feel squeezing certain parts of me.
We drove past a farmer driving a green John Deere tractor through a field, kicking up dust and scattering insects, most of which veered on a suicidal path toward the windshield of the car. I was glad I wasn't driving my precious red convertible BMW out here.
A colorful assortment of bug guts now decorated the windshield like miniature Rorschach ink-blot tests. One of the spots looked vaguely like our boss, who'd sported a towering strawberry-blond beehive since the sixties. Her hairdo had to be at least eight inches tall, held together by a thorough coating of extra-hold hairspray.
I pointed at the pinkish goo. "What's that look like to you?"
Nick squinted at the glass. "The Lobo."
"My thought exactly."
Nick glanced my way and my crotch clenched reflexively. He always looked hot, but he was especially attractive at the moment. He'd topped his stylishly shaggy brown hair with the white felt Stetson I'd bought him shortly after sneaking him out of Mexico. Yep, I had a soft spot for cowboys. Make that two soft spots—one spot was metaphorical, the other was between my thighs.
Nick flashed a mischievous grin. "You know what's the last thing to go through a bug's mind when he hits your windshield?"
I rolled my eyes and pulled to a stop behind another white government-issue sedan parked by a rusty gate. "Here we are. The middle of BFE."
A spray-painted plywood sign affixed to the barbed-wire fence read PROPERTY OF THE LONE STAR NATION. TRESPASSERS WILL BE VIOLATED.
Nick groaned. "You didn't tell me we'd be dealing with idiots."
"You didn't ask," I said. "And need I remind you that you volunteered for this assignment?"
"Next time I'll ask for more details before I commit," he muttered.
The Lone Star Nation was a separatist group, a bunch of antigovernment loonies who referred to themselves as "True Texans" and operated an unofficial sovereign state. For such a small organization they'd proved to be a huge pain in the ass.
The group was just one of several secessionist organizations in the state. The largest group, known as the Republic of Texas, was the most notorious. The Republic had issued numerous bogus court summons and filed frivolous lawsuits with both the Supreme Court of Texas and the International Court of Justice at the Hague, challenging the annexation of Texas in 1845 by the United States.
That's what happens when rednecks have too much time on their hands.
After shootouts between federal agents and armed extremists in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas, the government had received a lot of flack, virtually all of it from wack jobs and nearly all of it undue. There's no clean way to take down these types of people. They don't exactly think and act reasonably.
Government agencies had learned to be extra careful in handling interactions with members of such groups. In 1997, state troopers had negotiated a surrender with Richard McLaren, the former leader of the Republic of Texas, after he'd been accused of fraud and kidnapping. Still, two of the group's members had refused to cooperate and one of them had been shot dead after they'd opened fire on a police helicopter.
Thus, despite the fact that August and Betty Buchmeyer hadn't filed a tax return since Ronald and Nancy Reagan were bumping uglies in the White House, Lu had made a strategic decision not to arrest the couple. Rather, she'd instructed me only to see what we could collect from the elderly deadbeats, perhaps make an example of them to the dozen or so steadfast True Texans who stubbornly stuck to their beliefs.
Collections work was boring as hell, essentially standing guard while staff from the collections department seized any nonexempt assets. While most tax evaders cursed and glared, others moaned and sobbed, lamenting the loss of their RVs, their collection of mink coats, their limited-edition prints. But sheez, by the time it got to that point they'd been given ample opportunity to make payment arrangements and had stubbornly refused. It wouldn't be fair to honest, hardworking taxpayers to let scofflaws off the hook.
So here we were.
Nick and I climbed out of the car. The intense midsummer heat caused an instant sweat to break out on my skin. Nick shrugged into his bulletproof vest and a navy sport coat. I slipped my protective vest on over my white cotton blouse and secured my gun in my hip holster, covering them both with a lightweight yellow blazer. Standard precautions. After all, it wasn't likely a couple of octogenarians would put up a fight. Right?
A hundred feet inside the gate sat a weather-beaten blue single-wide trailer in a thick patch of weeds. The house stood slightly cockeyed from settling unevenly into the reddish soil. The metal skirting had pulled away in places and there was no telling what manner of vermin had made a home under the structure. An enormous, outdated satellite dish mounted on a sturdy five-foot pole stood between the trailer and a lone, misshapen mesquite tree that struggled for life in the bare, dry dirt. An ancient pickup with faded two-tone brown paint sat on the far side of the dirt driveway. Two rusted tractors, a dented horse trailer, and a broken-down trampoline, its springs long since sprung, littered the yard.
Fifty yards beyond the house stood a series of long metal barns. The hot breeze blew toward us, carrying with it the faint sounds of clucking and the stench of bird poop. Over it all flew the Burnet flag, an azure background with a single gold star in the middle, the last flag flown over Texas when it was still an independent country.
Nick gave a whistle. "Boy howdy. This is quite the presidential palace."
The collections agent stepped out of her car and met us on the asphalt. She was fortyish and slender, with short black hair. She wore a floral-print dress with sensible flats, and introduced herself as Jane Jenkins.
"This shouldn't take long," Jenkins said. "I'm not expecting to find much. Other than the trailer, twenty acres of scrubland, and the pickup, there's no property in their name."
"What about the chickens?" I asked. "They've got to be worth something." After all, a two-piece meal at KFC ran about four bucks. I should know. I'd had some extra crispy for lunch.
Jenkins shook her head. "We've got a strict policy in collections. We don't seize anything that eats and craps. Costs too much to care for animals."
Made sense. Better to wait for the owner to sell the birds then seize the resulting profits. Problem was, the IRS had levied the Buchmeyers' bank account years ago, garnering over six grand in one fell swoop just after the couple received a large payment from one of their customers. Since then, the couple had taken to operating on a cash-only basis.
Where the cash was being held was anyone's guess. With any luck, we'd find some in their trailer today, maybe under a mattress or in their toilet tank. Eddie'd once collected ten grand from a delinquent taxpayer who'd hidden large bills in his bowling bag, including stacks of hundreds stashed in his bowling shoes under a pair of Odor-Eaters. When Eddie couldn't find the cash he was sure the man had somewhere in his possession, he'd left the apartment and pulled the fire alarm at the complex. On hearing the alarm, the guy ran outside with the bowling bag. A dead giveaway.
Yep, sometimes being a special agent calls for creative tactics.
Nick, Jenkins, and I carefully stepped across the metal cattle guard and walked up to the gate. The opening was secured by two large, rusty padlocks joined with heavy-gauge chain thick enough to anchor an aircraft carrier.
I stepped forward and tugged on the locks. They didn't budge.
Jenkins frowned. "I called ahead and told them to unlock the gate for us."
It wouldn't be the first time a taxpayer refused to cooperate. Wouldn't be the last, either. For some reason, people didn't like turning over their sports cars, big-screen televisions, and jewelry collections to the IRS. Not that we were likely to find anything like that here. The Buchmeyers' profits had been modest. If they'd paid on time, their tax bill would've been paltry. But once three decades of interest and penalties were tacked on, those tiny tax bills had grown to over a hundred grand.
The three of us spent a few minutes searching for any keys that might be hidden about, turning over rocks, checking in and under the mailbox and behind the fence posts. We came up empty-handed.
I glanced back at the trailer. The faded blue and white striped bath towel serving as a curtain in the front window was pulled back, an older woman's face visible. She raised a gnarled hand and gave me the finger. Wouldn't be the first or last time that happened, either.
"Got their phone number handy?" I asked Jenkins.
She rattled it off and I dialed the Buchmeyers on my cell.
After five rings, someone picked up the phone. "Hello?" an old man's voice rasped.
"Mr. Buchmeyer, this is IRS Special Agent Tara Holloway. We need you to come on out here and unlock your gate."
An elderly man's face appeared in the window. "I ain't going to do that, young lady," he spat. "I don't recognize the authority of the United States government to tax me nor seize my property. This here place belongs to the Lone Star Nation. Didn't you see the sign?"
"The sign doesn't mean anything, Mr. Buchmeyer."
"Like hell it don't! If you all dare to enter my property, I'll be obligated to defend it. Now you go about your business and let me go about mine." With that, he hung up the phone and yanked the curtain closed.
Copyright © 2012 by Diane Kelly