MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
At two o'clock on a Saturday afternoon in early February I spent a full minute pulling forward and back, forward and back, trying to maneuver my plain white government sedan into a space at the curb. I could put a bullet into a bull's-eye at three hundred yards, but I'd never mastered the art of parallel parking.
My partner cut his brown eyes my way. Eddie was tall, talented, and tough, a black father of two and a political conservative, more Clint Eastwood than Kanye West. Though he said nothing, his expression spoke for him. It said, Wow. You really suck at this.
I cut my gray-blue eyes back at him, hoping he'd read the reply contained therein, which was, Pffft.
"Close enough," I muttered, turning off the engine. The car sat farther than the recommended six to eight inches from the curb, but if Dallas PD issued me a ticket I could pull rank and get it dismissed. Working for Uncle Sam definitely had some benefits.
We climbed out of the car, made our way up onto the sidewalk, and pulled open the glass door that led into Doggie Style. Nope, the place wasn't a sex shop. It was a pet groomer. Get your mind out of the gutter. Or at least six to eight inches from the gutter.
An alarm on the door announced our arrival with a short, sharp beep.
The place was small and smelled like a rank yet refreshing mix of wet dog and oranges, probably from some type of citrus-based flea shampoo. A pegboard along the side wall displayed an assortment of bows, collars, barrettes, and other fashion accessories for pets. A bulletin board on the back wall featured snapshots of the groomer's kitty and canine clientele in cute costumes, including a white poodle in a pink tutu and a brown tabby in army fatigues. A notation under the cat's photo identified him as Chairman Meow.
Eddie eyed the photos. "Dressing up your pet? That's just wrong."
"I think it's cute."
An open door behind the service counter led to the groomer's workspace. Through the door we could see an elevated table currently occupied by a golden-red chow. A nooselike apparatus hung from a pole, encircling his fluffy neck and immobilizing him. A big-boned woman with a blond ponytail circled the dog, examining him closely, occasionally reaching out with the clippers to perfect his lion cut. Bzz. Bzz. Something tiny, black, and furry peered up from a pillow in the corner, opening its mouth in a wide, pink yawn. Being adorable was exhausting.
"Be right there!" the woman barked without looking up.
Why was I here? Because I worked as a criminal investigator for the IRS and the groomer had not only shaved dogs and cats but had shaved well over a hundred thousand off her reported earnings as well. The audit department had issued an assessment, but Hilda Gottschalk had refused to pay up. On three separate occasions, an agent from the collections department had come by and seized the contents of the cash register, netting a mere two hundred dollars for his efforts. Not an efficient process, obviously.
Hilda still owed thirty grand and was making no attempts to settle her tax bill. The IRS had put a lien on her house and levied the small balance in her checking account, but it was clear the woman was hiding her cash somewhere, like a dog hiding a bone, secreting it to savor later.
When the collections department had no luck tracking down her hidden profits, they'd booted the case over to criminal investigations. That's where I came in. I'm Special Agent Tara Holloway, a law enforcement agent for the IRS, a tax cop if you will. I had the same powers as the collections agents to seize assets, but I also had a gun, handcuffs, and the legal right to kick tax-evader ass. Often, when cases were escalated to criminal investigations, tax cheats finally realized their days of playing games were over. Many cooperated at that point. A few, however, chose to go down fighting.
I hoped Hilda wouldn't be the latter type. I had front-row seats for a concert tonight and I'd prefer to save my energy for dancing to the tunes of my favorite country crossover star.
The mere thought of his name made me want to sigh and swoon and shine his belt buckle with my panties. Yep, I had it bad for the guy. A major celebrity crush that would put any tweener with Bieber fever to shame.
Hilda removed the noose from the dog's head. With a grunt, she lifted the big beast from the table, set him on the floor, and led him to a large cage to await his owner's return.
Clippers still in hand, she stepped into the foyer, her hazel eyes flicking to Eddie before meeting mine. "What can I do for you?"
Might as well cut to the chase. I needed the rest of the afternoon to primp and preen and wax my upper lip. "You can tell us where you've hidden your assets."
Hilda frowned as she took in the badges Eddie and I held up. "Who the hell are you?"
"Special Agents Tara Holloway and Eddie Bardin," I said. "We're from IRS criminal investigations. Your case has been escalated." Saying her case had been escalated was the polite way of letting her know she was in deep doo-doo.
She crossed her arms over her chest, flicking the clippers on and off with her thumb. Bzz. Bzz. "You can't make me talk."
Ugh. So that's how she wanted to play this, huh?
I put a hand on my waist and pushed back my blazer, revealing the Glock holstered at my waist. Her eyes went to my gun and back to my face. The expression in them read, Fuck you and the horse you rode in on. Her eyes were very ill-mannered.
Eddie chimed in. "The government means business, Miss Gottschalk. Either you tell us where your assets are or you go to jail."
She seemed to ponder his words for a moment, clicking the clippers on and off once more—bzz-bzz—before glancing back into the workroom. "I can't leave these dogs here."
Eddie cocked his head. "You won't have to if you tell us where you've hidden your cash."
Bzz. Bzz. She looked the two of us over as if sizing us up. She had a good six inches over my five-feet-two-inch frame and, with her stout build, likely weighed as much as Eddie. Still, there were two of us and only one of her. Neener-neener.
"All right," she said finally. "I've got some cash in my safe in the back room."
"Got anything else in that safe?" A gun, perhaps? I'd learned—the hard way—never to assume someone would be unarmed.
"That's for me to know!" she called out in a snarky, singsong voice. "And you to find out!"
I rolled my eyes. What did she think this was, a third-grade playground spat?
Eddie and I followed her to the back room. I glanced around. The black puppy was curled up in a tiny ball on his pillow now, snoozing away. The floor in front of the porcelain tub glistened with water droplets, having yet to dry after the chow had taken his bath. Clumps of reddish-gold dog hair lay on the floor around the grooming table.
Hilda led us to a small storage closet in the corner and pointed at the door. "The safe is in there."
"I'll open it," Eddie said.
That meant I'd be standing guard, making sure Hilda didn't pull a fast one. You might think it would've been better to have Eddie on guard, but you'd be wrong, even if you are one of those geniuses who knows how to parallel park. Eddie was bigger and stronger than me, sure, but he didn't have my quick-draw gun skills. They didn't call me the Annie Oakley of the IRS for nothing. I put a hand on the butt of my gun, ready for action.
Eddie opened the door to the closet. A stack of white towels sat on the top shelf, bottles of pet shampoo on the next one down. On the floor was a mop bucket. That was it. No safe in sight.
Eddie hadn't gotten his words out before Hilda lunged toward the back exit door.
Oh, hell, no.
This woman is not getting away.
I sprang toward her and grabbed her thick arm. She flung me aside with little effort. All those years of lifting dogs had given her some solid arm muscles.
"Crap!" I slipped on the wet floor and landed on my butt, my head banging back against the tub. Damn, that hurt! My brain rattled, I sat helpless for a moment as I tried to gather my wits. Unfortunately, my wits were all over the place, like a litter of lively puppies. Before they could be fully corralled, Eddie blocked Hilda's escape route and she decided to seize the moment and come at me with the clippers.
The clippers buzzed like a ferocious swarm of hornets around my head. Bzzzzz! Bzzzzz! Before I could slap Hilda's hands away, a harsh tug began at my forehead and ended at the crown of my head. A four-inch strip of my chestnut hair fell into my lap.
"Stop that!" I yelled, leveraging my back against the tub and kicking out at her with my steel-toed shoes.
I landed two solid kicks to her meaty calf but my actions didn't scare her off. They only seemed to make her madder. She came at me again, her face red and blotchy with anger and adrenaline.
With a primal cry, Eddie grabbed the woman from behind and pulled her away from me, shoving her up against the wall. But it was too late. My hair was now styled in a reverse Mohawk.
I reached up to touch the bald landing strip on my head, igniting in an instant fury. How dare this woman ruin my two-hundred-dollar cut and color! Especially when I'd be meeting Brazos Rivers in person tonight.
My body launched from the floor like a bitch-seeking missile, hurtling toward its target. I body-slammed the woman from behind, smashing her face and torso against the wall. The clippers fell from her hand with a thunk.
On instinct, I yanked my gun from my holster only to shove it back in when I had second thoughts. I'd just recently got back my job with the IRS after being fired for shooting a target four times in the leg. Long story, but suffice it to say the bastard deserved every one of those bullets and then some. Still, I knew that using my gun now would get me in even deeper doo-doo than Hilda Gottschalk. I'd have to even the score some other way. Hmm …
An eye for an eye.
A tooth for a tooth.
A hair for a hair.
Copyright © 2014 by Diane Kelly