Last Dance

an excerpt

Chapter One



Here are some fun facts about Texas you may not know. We invented Dr Pepper. And, by the way, there is no full stop after "Dr" in "Dr Pepper." And did you know that Texas was its own nation from 1836 to 1845? I tell you this for a reason.

It explains a lot.

There's another thing I'd like to mention. The word "Texas" comes from the Hasinai Indian word "tejas," meaning "friends" or "allies."

I've lived my whole life in Texas with mercifully few reasons to spend much time in the city of Mesquite. And now with one hysterical visit from Elsie DePriest, I was suddenly going to be spending a whole lotta time there.

And I had no idea who was a tejas there and, more importantly, who was not.

The death of Dillon DePriest had been a shock. Not just in Lone Trail, but the entire state of Texas had gone into orbit. The news moved like a brush fire. It was on radio, TV, and Internet bulletins. Elsie begged me to go on up to Mesquite and find whoever did this to her man and have him put to death by firing squad.

"And then I want to know what Big Daddy was doing in a whorehouse," she blubbered as Kieran poured her the only drink we had in the house. Dr Pepper.

"You got Diet Dr Pepper?" she asked, then must have decided to screw the calories and took a long sip.

Kieran sat beside her as I called the number she gave me.

As the head of the U.S. Marshals for the district of Tyler, Texas, and a pancake eating buddy of Dillon's, it meant that I had to stick my steel-tip-toed boot into the mire.

Dillon being found dead in the whorehouse was embarrassing for Elsie...until she decided he must have been working undercover. When certain facts emerged to her and a few of us in law enforcement over the next twenty-four hours, it would become clear that she wasn't too far from the truth.

In the meantime, I learned from Sergeant Elvis Stockton, the lead investigator who'd initially called her, that Dillon had been strangled and stabbed. That was what Stockton told me on the phone.

"I don't think she took it all in when I spoke to her," Stockton said. "Don't bring her here. She will never get over it. I've been in law enforcement seventeen years and I've never seen a crime scene like this one."

Great. Just great.

Elsie's husband dying in a violent way was unfathomable to her, even though he'd been the sheriff of Lone Trail. As we spoke, she convinced herself he must have been working undercover, a catch cry that went up around the whole state as the night wore on.

I made arrangements to drive up to Mesquite, about eighty-five miles from Lone Trail. I could make it there in just over an hour. I asked Kieran to look after her. I knew she shouldn't be alone.

He wasn't crazy about playing babysitter but the cop on the phone mentioned that the whorehouse was an underground one. That meant the media would be buzzing all over Lone Trail by morning. We had to protect Elsie.

As I got ready to leave, she clutched my arm in a wild moment and actually said to me, "Geez, I put him on a diet for nothing. Dillon coulda been enjoying all his favorite foods in his final days."

Kieran and I stared at one another.

I wanted her to think of him that way, the man who minded her, who followed her dietary instructions even though I'd eaten pancakes and bacon with him a few times. Let her have her dreams.

"Oh, shoot," she suddenly said. "I've got his dinner in the oven. Must be burned to a crisp by now. I was planning a healthy, balanced meal for him...not--" her face crumpled in grief "--for his funeral."

Kieran picked up his keys. "We'll go turn off the oven and collect anything you need for the next couple of days," he said kindly. "Then we can come back and make a list of all the people you need to call."

She gazed up at him, her eyes filled with shock and pain. Yes. She'd need help with the funeral home, with telling their grown kids.

I blew him a kiss over the top of her bent head. I went to pick up Bucky Benson, Dillon's second-in-charge. I'd texted him that I'd be coming by but I sensed his lack of enthusiasm by his response of okay.

He was waiting outside his house at the end of my street looking pale in the moonlight, his old hunting dog, Girl, standing beside him. Bucky's wife called the dog back into the house. Bucky looked like he wanted to run right back with her.

"I can't believe I have to go see his dead body," Bucky said when he finally got into my SUV and buckled himself in.

"Yeah, I know."

I was distracted as we drove off. I knew that Dillon had been going to Eva Jones's cathouse here locally. I had a feeling he'd gone farther afield after he'd been the one to spot one of the U.S. Marshals' most wanted fugitives a few weeks back.

I'd seen tape of Dillon in the house. He'd been wise to move his shenanigans out of Dodge...but why an underground whorehouse? And why the hell had he been murdered?

A small-town sheriff being killed in a place like that raised some pretty mighty hackles. My cell phone kept ringing but I ignored it.

It was now approximately two hours since Dillon's body had been discovered. The local cops were on the scene and none too thrilled to keep his body where it was, but they had no choice since I'd pulled some strings and promised Elsie I'd go and investigate.

Suddenly Bucky Benson began crying like a child beside me in my SUV.

"How could this happen?" he kept moaning. "Who'd wanna kill Dill?"

My cell phone rang when we were fifteen minutes out of Mesquite. This time I answered it. I'd called my right-hand man Trace Thatcher. I'd debated it, but I trusted Trace more than any other man except for Kieran.

I hated calling him, especially since he was at his daughter's high school dance as a chaperon. Trace however, was full of apologies.

"Sorry, Chief," he said, "I didn't even hear my phone vibrating with this DJ's shitty music." He listened as I told him what had happened. It seemed to set Bucky off on a fresh crying jag.

"I'm on my way," Trace said. "This is some fucked-up shit."

He had that right. I knew he was in Dallas, twelve miles from Mesquite, so he might even beat me there.

I let Bucky sob his brains out because I had no adequate words to make him feel better. The knowledge that a good and decent man lay dead waiting for us began to really hit me.

To mute the sounds of grief, I turned on the news but didn't learn anything I didn't already know. I got a call from Kieran, who was back at my house. The only voice I yearned for. My stomach muscles instantly relaxed.

"You almost there?" he asked, his voice warm, concerned.

"Yeah, everything okay your end?"

"She's amazing," he said. "Fuck, Jube. Don't get killed. I couldn't handle it. I'd die."

"Back at you." I hadn't wanted to involve him in this mess until I knew what we were dealing with, and he had his hands full with Elsie. That was huge. I would never stop thanking him for it.

"Who's crying?" he asked, sounding surprised.

"Bucky."

"Holy shit. I didn't know he was that close to Dillon."

"I'll call you back," I said as Buck and I rolled into Mesquite. Like I said, I haven't had much occasion to be there often. Beyond taking Philip and Andre for a game of miniature golf a year or so back, it wasn't on my bucket list of places to visit again before I die.

I followed the onboard navigational system's directions to Clay Mathis Road. By all accounts this is the nice part of Mesquite, one almost completely unvisited by crime.

Until now.

Mesquite is a fairly large city, its population of fifty-five thousand are not violent types. Mesquite reports more crimes against property than people and the suburb of Lawson, one of the more prestigious ones, hadn't had a murder on the books in years.

It's a strange place with only one really peculiar law that I know of. In Mesquite, it is illegal for kids to have unusual haircuts. So, you can imagine how they react to murder.

I took the twists and turns as dictated by Joan Rivers on my navigation system. My sister Pauline had bought it as a gag gift for me from my nephews and I am ashamed to say I loved it. Since we installed it a few days ago, I sometimes get in the damned vehicle with my nephews and drive around just to enjoy Joan's abuse.

"Where the hell are you going?" she bawled at me now. "I said left, idiot!"

Bucky started to laugh in spite of himself. I rolled back, made the turn and was startled to see a wide steel fence and a huge archway reading, Daisy's Dukes. A whorehouse named Daisy's Dukes--I kid you not--advertising itself.

And this is supposed to be an underground location?

I drove through the open gates and spotted another sign to my left. A spotlight switched on over it as soon as it detected motion. I stopped.

Welcome! Come to Daisy's, where every man feels like a duke!

"What's a duke, exactly?" Bucky asked me.

"A moron with a small dick, no brains, and too much cash."

He fell about laughing as if I were the funniest guy alive. I stepped on the gas. The house was a large, white Tara type place with porch swings and big, fancy columns set against weeping willows. It was so lavish I suddenly understood why Lone Trail's resident madam, Eva Jones, had been busy upgrading her own cathouse.

For a moment after I switched off the engine, I stared at "Tara." I hunched over the wheel, half expecting Scarlett O'Hara to run out of the house screaming for Rhett.

What I saw beside it was a plethora of police vehicles. I picked out a couple of U.S. Marshal cars I guessed were from Dallas. I turned off the engine just as my right-hand man Trace Thatcher rolled up behind me. He looked handsome in his dinner suit.

"Thanks for coming," I said. We shook hands.

"Anything for you...and Dillon." He looked upset. "I would have been pissed if you hadn't called me." He meant what he said. Trace never bullshitted me.

We all donned latex gloves and negotiated entry with the Mesquite sheriff's deputies who were stationed around the back where most of the activity was.

They came right over to us.

"Marshal Mason," a voice rang out as the two deputies tried to block us. "We've been expecting you." He beckoned us with gloved hands, and in the near darkness we blew past the bullies and picked our way down a sweeping driveway. I peered ahead. There were bungalows like little cabins dotting a pleasant looking lake. Only one was lit up and I could see a couple of crime scene vans parked beside it.

About a hundred yards away from the deputies, the man beckoning us toward it turned and extended his hand to me.

"I'm Elvis Stockton from the Lawson police division. We spoke on the phone and, like I told you, this is a bad business."

After introducing myself and Trace, I introduced Bucky. The two sheriff's men seemed to feel a bond and kept pumping each other's hand.

"Frankly, I'm glad you wanted to come because there's a rather delicate situation I need you to handle," Stockton said to me. "I want you to look at the body first then we'll talk inside the house."

I could smell the blood as we stepped over the grass, stood on the welcome mat and hopped on either foot as we donned paper booties. I walked into the bungalow first, Trace right behind me.

Bile rose in my throat. Two crime scene techs were photographing and videotaping everything, my brain refusing to process what my eyes saw.

"Tell Bucky to stay outside," I said over my shoulder to Trace. "He can't handle this."

But Bucky had looked over our shoulders and glimpsed the carnage. That was the only word for it.

It was a bloodbath.

Bucky began to sob and Elvis Stockton led him away. The crime scene guys stood back and let us view Dillon's body. Dillon and I hadn't always seen eye to eye but I'd never have wished such an awful death for the man. He was fully clothed but he'd been strangled with his own belt. Had he walked in here, removed it and then been attacked?

His chest, head, hands and arms were literally covered in stab wounds. I gazed at his hands. Defense wounds. He'd fought for his life.

I took a quick look around the room, taking in the elegant lace bedding on the four-poster bed. There was a ton of sexual paraphernalia...BDSM stuff that surprised me, especially having viewed footage of Dillon in action. He was a wham, bam, thank you ma'am type of guy.

Staged. I was positive this had been staged.

There was so much blood. I stepped around Dillon. I walked back again.

"Was there another body?" I asked.

One of the technicians muttered, "Bingo."

"There was?" I lifted a brow.

"We think so. There's a handprint in the blood over here on the floor on the other side of the bed. A small handprint but we don't want to use luminol on it until we move the sheriff's body. Handprint's smaller than his though, so yeah, we think there was another body. We have lots of samples, but by the--"

"He was moved," Trace said suddenly.

"Double bingo," the tech said. "I was just about to say that. This here is a crime scene obviously but is it his? We won't know until we get the blood work back. But from the body's lividity, he was on his belly and somebody rolled him over."

"You haven't found any other bloody rooms?" I asked.

Both men shook their heads. One of the techs' cell phones rang. The guy took the call and looked at me. "They want you up in the main house," he said.

Trace and I stripped off our booties and gloves and strode up to the house.

"Tell me your thoughts," Trace said. "You don't like the crime scene, I can tell."

On the edge of the grass with the last bit of privacy we'd have here, I told him about Dillon and the whorehouse in Lone Trail. He took it all in with the grace a man of his experience should.

"You think it was staged?" he asked.

"Exactly."

"What the hell did he stumble into, that big dope?"

I couldn't have expressed my feelings better myself.

Elvis Stockton was waiting for us inside the house. If I hadn't experienced Eva Jones's recent refurbishments I might have been surprised at the elegant decor, the antiques and what not. Where did these brothel madams get all this gear? Whores R Us?

I glimpsed a couple of familiar looking antiques and became worried. I put my hand on Trace's arm.

"Cameras," I whispered. He didn't seem surprised.

Elvis was sitting at the dining table, accompanied by Bucky, two men from the U.S. Marshals in Dallas, the local fire captain for some strange reason, and a woman named Elaine Daniels, the brothel madam.

She was attractive enough to be a hooker herself. She might have been at one time. She had the mixture of charm and flintiness I'd experienced with Eva Jones.

I could tell however, that she hated all of this. She didn't want the scrutiny.

Trace and I joined the gathering and Elvis began talking. He had a notebook open on the table.

"According to Mizz Daniels, the decedent--" he glanced across the table at me and Trace "--that means the dead man--"

"I know what it means," I said. "And I don't think we should be discussing anything of a sensitive nature in here."

Elvis glanced down at his notes. "But...but I haven't finished my report yet."

"This entire house is wired for spy cams," I said. "I don't want our investigation to be compromised."

"It is?" Elvis began turning this way and that. "I don't see any cameras."

Elaine began to get huffy. "I wouldn't compromise anything!"

"We have a brutal murder to investigate," I said. "All these antiques are cameras. Do you have the murder caught on tape?"

All eyes turned to her.

She sagged in her seat. "No."

"Why not?"

She winced. "I haven't been recording anything for the last two weeks. I can't afford to keep the cloud storage payments going on top of all the landscaping. We just got all that in a month ago and I had no idea how much the water bill was going to be. I plan to resume full security as soon as possible."

I stared at her. Was she kidding?

"No ma'am, you won't be. This is a homicide investigation and we want to know who the young lady was in the bungalow with Dillon DePriest," Trace said.

I was glad he'd jumped in. He was a seasoned pro and between us we could handle this entire thing.

One of the Dallas marshals stood.

"I think we need to keep this to the essentials. I'm going to ask Sheriff Benson, the fire chief, and Sergeant Stockton to leave. Sergeant Stockton, I know it's an imposition but if you could drive Sheriff Benson back to Lone Trail I'd appreciate it."

Bucky seemed eager to get away. Both the fire chief and Elvis looked really unhappy.

"Could you see them to the door?" the marshal asked Elaine.

She didn't look thrilled but had no choice.

"I don't believe a word about the security system," I said quickly. "But we're going to need a search warrant. Dammit."

"Jubilee, I'm inclined to agree with you," the marshal said. "By the way, nobody introduced us, but I'm Sam Keller and my partner here is Jimmy Alden."

We all shook hands.

"I wondered about her earlier statement to me that she hadn't been filming the activities here, but I contacted the governor," Keller said. "Woke him up. He's approved a search warrant and it's on its way. I'm pleased you agree that at least something was caught on tape."

"Stockton's not a bad guy but he's out of his depth here," the other Marshal said.

When Elaine returned, she glanced fearfully at us all.

"What happens now?" she asked.

I looked her in the eye. "Now you tell us what happened."

She spread her hands. "He came in around eight, like I told your friends here. I normally give him a room in the house, but he's taken a real liking to one of our girls, Charlene, and he wanted privacy. He wanted a bungalow. I charge a lot extra for those normally, but I figured it always pays to keep on the good side of the police."

Oh, she was a piece of work. She was never going to stop reminding us that Dillon was a cop looking for pussy. Boy, did he pick the wrong place for a discreet nooner.

"Has he been here before?" I asked her.

"Twice. During the day."

That fit with his visits to Eva Jones's place. What made him come here in the evening?

"Can we talk to Charlene?" I asked.

"She's not here right now. She's gone home...she's a little upset."

"I'd say she'd be hysterical. Do you have a photo of her?" I asked. She got cagey then.

"Look, she already spoke to Sergeant Stockton. Elvis said she could go."

"I'd like to see her photo, please."

She went away and came back with a folder, an old-fashioned binder kind. That was interesting. Somebody had torn away a page with part of the three-hole punched plastic still stuck in the spine. Somebody had been doing some house cleaning.

"That's Charlene there," she said, pointing to a redhead with the name Lucinda typed underneath. "She works with a couple of names. He liked to call her Charlene."

"I don't think so," I retorted. "She's not his type. He likes blondes. Thin blondes that remind him of his wife."

I saw the shock in her eyes and felt the men beside me staring at her. She had no snappy comebacks and began looking around the room, eyes darting back and forth as if searching for her lost brains.

I pulled out my cell phone and called Stockton. "Can you come back?" I asked when he answered. "I wanna show you a photo of one of Elaine's girls. She claims it's Charlene--"

"Wait," Elaine said, throwing her hands in the air. "Okay. She's not Charlene."

"False alarm, keep driving." I paused. "Is that Bucky crying again?"

"Yeah," Elvis said. "I never knew a man who could cry like him."

We ended the call and I returned my attention to Elaine.

"Charlene..." She sighed in an aggrieved way. "She's kinda...young."

"How young?" I asked.

"Underage. He went a bit bonkers when he found out."

"How young?" one of the Dallas guys asked.

"Seventeen. Look, some guys like that. He got all upset. He went nuts! He shot my housekeeper when she tried to throw him out of the bungalow. She was an illegal immigrant and I didn't want that getting in the papers so one of my men got rid of her."

Every man at the table gave her a withering stare.

"You...didn't want to be associated with an illegal immigrant but a dead sheriff is okay?" I was incredulous.

"Well..." She spread her hands again.

"I don't buy it. Who stabbed and strangled him?" I asked.

"One of my men."

"Which one?"

"I don't know. I have three." She blushed. "They're my security detail."

"And what did they do with the housekeeper's body?"

She swallowed. I heard her gulping. "Tied bricks to her body and dropped her in...Lake Lavon."

I couldn't believe what I was hearing.

"I woulda had time to clean up the whole bungalow and he woulda been in the truck, too, but he was heavy and the guys panicked," she said. "That fat bastard called 911 and told them bungalow. That's the only reason they found him."

She dropped her head, shaking it. "I knew I shoulda told him no..."