Death, Taxes, and a Skinny No-Whip Latte

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Chapter One

It’s a Terrifying Job, But Somebody’s Gotta Do It


 “I’m scared shitless, Eddie.”

I looked over at my partner as he pulled his maroon minivan into the parking lot of the downtown Dallas post office. Eddie Bardin was tall and lean, sporting a gray suit and starched white dress shirt with a mint-green silk tie. Though Eddie was African-American, he was more J. Crew than 2 Live Crew, like a dark-chocolate version of President Obama. Not that Eddie’d ever condescend to vote for a democrat.

Despite the fact that my partner was a conservative married suburban dad and I was a free-thinking single city girl, the two of us got along great and made a kick-ass team. Problem was, the current ass we were aiming to kick was a very frightening one.

A row of cars stretched out in front of us, a solid red line of brake lights illuminating the early-evening drizzle. Apparently I wasn’t the only slacker who waited until April fifteenth to file their tax return.

Eddie pulled to a stop behind one of those newer odd-looking rectangular cars. Cube, was it? Quad? Shoebox? He glanced my way. “Scared? You? C’mon, Holloway. You’ve been slashed with a box cutter and shot at and lived to brag about it.” His scoffing tone might have been more believable if I hadn’t noticed his grip tighten on the steering wheel. “We’re invincible, you and me. Like Superman. Or toxic waste.”         

I scrunched my nose. “Ew. Couldn’t you have come up with a better metaphor?”

“I’m exhausted, Tara. And besides, it was a simile.” He muttered something under his breath about me being the child the education system left behind.

I might have been offended if I thought he truly meant it. You didn’t become a member of the Treasury Department’s Criminal Investigations team without a stellar academic record, impressive career credentials, and a razor-sharp intellect, not to mention a quick hand on both a calculator and a gun. Not that I’m bragging. But it’s true.

I toyed with the edge of the manila envelope in my lap. “Battaglia and Gryder were chump change compared to Marcos Mendoza, and you know it.”

Eddie and I had recently put two tax cheats–Jack Battaglia and Michael Gryder–behind bars, but not before Battaglia had sliced my forearm with a box cutter and Gryder had taken pot shots at me with a handgun and pierced Eddie’s earlobe with a bullet. Not exactly polite behavior. What’s more, neither of those men had a history of violence prior to attacking us. The focus of our current investigation, Marcos Mendoza, was an entirely different matter.

Due to a lack of evidence, Mendoza had never been officially accused of any crimes. Yet his business associates had a suspicious history of disappearing.

And resurfacing.

In dumpsters.

In pieces.

They’d found parts of Andrew Sheffield, a former employee of Mendoza and presumably his most recent victim, spread among garbage receptacles from Harlingen, to Houston, to San Antonio and beyond. The sanitation department of El Paso found Sheffield’s right foot, still clad in a pricey Ferragamo loafer, in the trash bin behind the police headquarters. Andrew had yet to be fully accounted for.

Hence my scared shitless state of mind.

We inched forward, the only sound the occasional swish of the intermittent wipers as they arced across the windshield.

I knew Eddie well enough to know his lack of response meant he agreed with me. But perhaps some things are better left unsaid.

Think happy thoughts, I told myself. Fluffy kittens. Colorful rainbows. Big tax refunds. Of course it would be easier to think happy thoughts if my right arm didn’t bear a plaster cast. I’d fractured my wrist diving out a window to evade Gryder. The con artist was rotting in jail now.

Hey, now there’s a happy thought.

Finally, we reached the bleary-eyed postal worker standing in the parking lot. She wore a dark blue rain slicker and held an umbrella in one hand, a white plastic box bearing the postal service eagle logo in the other.

I unrolled my window, letting in the dank air, and dropped my return into her nearly full bin. “Thanks. See you next April Fifteenth.”

A drop of rain rolled off the tip of her nose as she forced a feeble smile.

How much longer would I file single? I wasn’t yet ready for diapers, play-dates, and PTA meetings, but the thought of joint tax returns didn’t frighten me as much as it used to. Maybe because of Brett Ellington, the sweet, brave, and incredibly sexy landscape architect I’d been dating the past few months.

I rolled up my window and checked my watch. “6:37 PM. That’s a personal best.”

Eddie snorted. “I filed my return two months ago. Already got my refund.”

I cut my eyes to him. “Oh, yeah? And what did Sandra and the twins spend the money on?”

He turned away, letting me know my jibe had hit home.

“Ha! You are whipped, dude.”

“Better to be whipped than to be a procrastinator.”

“Hey, I’ve been busy.” Busy shopping and packing for my upcoming trip to Fort Lauderdale with Brett. I’d made no less than three trips to Victoria’s Secret before deciding on the red satin teddy with black trim and those little clip thingies to hold up a pair of old-fashioned fishnet stockings. I couldn’t wait for Brett to see me in it. He was a perfect gentleman in public, but in the bedroom, well, let’s just say he left his decorum at the door.

A new red chiffon cocktail dress had made its way into my shopping bag, too. The spaghetti straps and handkerchief edge gave it a feminine and festive feel. It was the perfect outfit for the American Society of Landscape Architects’ awards banquet, where the Society would bestow its prestigious Landmark Award on Brett for his work at city hall. I’d scored the dress forty-percent off at an after-Easter sale. Christ may have risen, but Neiman’s had lowered its prices. Hallelujah!

I stifled a yawn. Not surprising I was tired since we’d been on the job since nine o’clock that morning and at the office until midnight the last few nights reviewing paperwork. The Mendoza case was so highly sensitive we’d been forbidden to discuss it with anyone, even our co-workers. To maintain secrecy, we’d been forced to perform some of our work after hours.

Why the secrecy? Three years ago, a special agent named Nick Pratt had infiltrated Mendoza’s operations and purportedly obtained evidence that Mendoza had earned enormous sums of illegal, unreported income. Though the details were sketchy, Mendoza allegedly got wind of the investigation, bought off the agent, and set up the traitor in a luxury beachside condominium in Cancún, Mexico.

Tough life, huh?

Lawyers at the U.S. Department of Justice fought to extradite Pratt back to the U.S. on charges of obstruction of justice and theft of government property, but the Mexican judge refused to cooperate, claiming all Pratt did was quit his job at the IRS, which wasn’t illegal. He argued the theft charge wouldn’t stick since Pratt’s government-issued cell phone and laptop were mailed back to the department. Of course all of the data had been wiped clean, the hard drive erased. Presumably Mendoza had the judge in his pocket.

If only money were at stake, the government might have let the case go. But given the recent increase in body count, the case was reopened.

Come hell or high water, Mendoza had to be stopped.

And it was up to Eddie and me to stop him.

We’d been on the case only four days, since Eddie had returned from his medical leave, sans one bullet-damaged earlobe. We’d finally finished our review of the documentation. We’d painstakingly searched through Mendoza’s tax filings and those of the businesses linked to him, document by document, page by page, entry by entry. But this guy knew how to cover his tracks.

We’d found no evidence. No leads. Nada.

Nada damn thing.