FIVE

Dark clouds smothered the full moon.

Shadows blanketed the desert.

Kate Benteen moved in.

A man dressed in black leather lay on the ground. Kate figured it had to be Ellis Aaron Perkins, because the man’s resemblance to Elvis Presley was uncanny.

A Winchester shotgun lay at his side. She kicked it out of the way, then nudged Ellis’s head with the toe of her boot. When it came to determining life or death, the old nudge-nudge wasn’t the most scientific method in her repertoire. But tonight it did just fine, because tonight Kate didn’t feel like a doctor at all.

And besides, any fool could see that Ellis was deader than Grizzly Gulch on Saturday night.

Ten, maybe fifteen steps separated Kate from the trailer. The dull yellow glow of the porch light puddled on the front stairs. The screen door was a broken mess hanging from one hinge. The front door stood open. Soft fluorescent illumination bathed the living room carpet. Not much light, and not good light, but enough to give Kate a fighting chance if Ellis’s killer was wailing to ambush her.

There wasn’t a lot of wiggle room in a trailer. Kate knew that if she was in for a fight, it would be belly to belly. She’d have to make her first shot count, because she probably wouldn’t get a chance at a second.

Iron clouds melted overhead. The night grew blacker. Kate stood next to Ellis’s corpse, listening for the slightest sound from the trailer.

What she heard was a whole lot of nothing. Staying low, she moved toward Ellis’s Cadillac and placed her palm on the hood. The engine was colder than he was.

She kept moving. Dressed in black, right down to a pair of steel-toed go-go boots. She hadn’t worn the outfit since she’d done that action flick for Roger Corman two years ago. But she was glad she’d saved it, because it was just the thing for covert ops.

Her palms were completely dry. That was good, because you didn’t want to get careless when you were holding a Benelli Super 90. Guns amp; Ammo called it the world’s deadliest combat shotgun, and Kate wasn’t about to argue with Guns amp; Ammo.

She skirted the puddle of yellow light on the porch. Put her back to the wall next to the door. The trailer was warm, the metal siding still holding the heat of the noonday sun.

Kate drew a measured breath and held it until her lungs burned. The shotgun was ready. So was the Heckler, secure in its shoulder holster.

So was Kate Benteen.

She whirled fast, a whisper of black leather, and came through the doorway low, her green eyes scanning the room with the deadly intent of a cold-blooded predator.

The man who turned to face her looked too white in the fluorescent light. He said “Jesus Christ!” and the Siamese cat he was holding sprang from his arms.

Kate almost pulled the trigger. Almost. .

And then she was shaking. . because she’d almost pulled the trigger. Almost. .

The cat brushed past her leg and raced outside, hissing.

“Hey,” the guy said. ‘Take it easy, all right? We’ve got two corpses here already.”

Kate swore. Then she lowered the shotgun.

She said, “What the hell happened to your hair, champ?”

Jack explained about the haircut. Benteen laughed, but it didn’t seem all that funny to Jack. His haircut had almost got him killed.

She ruffled the uneven buzz with one hand. “You look like you lost a fight with a lawn mower.”

“Thanks a lot.”

“Kind of makes you look like Bruce Willis-”

“You can stop now.”

“Only you’ve got a nicer smirk.”

“Hey. .”

“Ohhh. . Touchy, are we?”

She was wearing some kind of black leather jumpsuit with lots of zippers. Black boots, too. Even her shotgun was black. Overall, she looked like a refugee from The Avengers.

“You do your shopping at the Emma Peel Outlet or something?” Jack asked.

She glanced down, as if she’d suddenly forgotten what she was wearing. “Some styles are eternal,” she explained. “That’s what they say in Vogue. And according to Soldier of Fortune, black leather is still all the rage for late-night derring-do.”

That seemed to wrap up the chitchat. Jack got down to it. “So, what brings you here?”

“Process of elimination. I got tired of sitting around the motel waiting for answers. I figured I’d go out and find some for myself. I’ve already kicked in Wyetta Earp’s front door. Deputy Rorie’s, too. They weren’t home. I figured Ellis was next on the list of possible suspects.”

“What do you think?”

“I think Ellis isn’t up to giving me the answers I’ve come looking for.”

“He’s not the only one.”

Jack pointed at a chain that was held in place by an eyebolt screwed into the living room floor. Together, they followed the chain’s path to the bedroom.

The last link of the chain was attached to a shackle that encircled a woman’s leg. At least it had once been a woman’s leg. Now it was a mass of tom flesh, sharp sliver of shinbone showing through.

Priscilla’s corpse lay on the bed. The room was painted with her blood. Only her face was recognizably human.

“Shotgun,” Kate said. “And there’s a Winchester Model 97 out by Ellis’s corpse.”

“So Ellis killed Priscilla … but who killed him?”

“You’re telling me that you didn’t do it?”

Jack snorted laughter. “Lady, believe it or not, I don’t even have a gun.”

She looked at him and didn’t so much as blink. He could see that her grip was firm on the shotgun. “I think it’s time you explain your part in this,” she said.

“Meaning?”

“Meaning: what the hell are you doing in Pipeline Beach, champ?”

Explaining the deal with Freddy G took a while. Kate Benteen was skeptical at first, and Jack couldn’t understand why. It wasn’t like he was telling her that he was a soldier, an Olympic diving champion, a doctor, a rodeo rider, and a movie star all rolled into one.

But in the end she seemed to believe him. So he told her about his last phone conversation with Priscilla.

Ellis’s wife had wanted out of Pipeline Beach. Bad. Jack said he’d help her if she’d tell him what she knew about Komoko and the money. She agreed and gave him part of the story as a gesture of good faith. Jack was to meet her at the trailer after Ellis left town on his flea market rounds.

If things had gone according to plan. Jack would have gotten Priscilla’s story and Priscilla would have gotten out of town courtesy of Freddy G. Of course, things didn’t go according to plan. Ellis obviously hadn’t left town, and things had gone bad for Priscilla in a big way.

Kate took her time, thinking about Jack’s story. Finally, she said, “So you don’t want the money for yourself.”

“Hey, I want my twenty percent. Freddy promised me that. But I’m not planning to steal two million from the mob. That would be crazy.”

“You think Vince was crazy?”

Jack shook his head. “No … not after what Priscilla told me.”

“Do tell.”

“Priscilla didn’t give me the whole story. But what she did say was that Komoko walked into a setup. He wasn’t stealing that two million at all. He wasn’t stupid enough to run out on the mob. Priscilla wouldn’t tell me who set him up, but I’ve got a pretty good idea. Priscilla was in on it, of course, and I think she had some help from-”

“Let me guess: the Lone Rangerette and her own personal Tonto.”

“So you’ve met Wyetta and Rorie.”

‘They showed up at the Saguaro Riptide with their rubber hoses this afternoon. We had quite a little chat.”

“Okay, then. I think we’re starting to get an idea of exactly who did what to whom. But that still doesn’t tell us where the money is.”

“That’s easy,” Kate said. “It’s in room 23 at the Saguaro Riptide, under my bed.”

“I was one up on you in the Mike Hammer department, champ. Vince left a message on my answering machine the night he was ambushed. He told me exactly where he hid the money. All I had to do was show up with a shovel and start digging.”

“He wanted you to have it?”

She nodded. “Vince didn’t tell me where the money came from. He didn’t say what he was doing with it. What he said was that there was a good chance he wouldn’t see the other side of the trouble he was in. He figured he wasn’t going to be able to take the money with him if things went the way he thought they were going to go, and that I was the only person in the world he’d want to end up with two million bucks if he had to leave it behind.”

Jack shook his head. Kate Benteen stood in front of him with a shotgun in her hands. A pistol waited snug and secure in the shoulder holster under her right arm. And the missing millions were under her bed.

“This is crazy,” he said. “If you’ve already got the money, what the hell are you doing hanging around here?”

She smiled. “I’m looking for closure.”

“Huh?”

The smile was gone. She sighed. “Look … we don’t have time for this. I couldn’t explain it if I spent all night trying. It would sound corny and awful and maudlin if I even tried. Let’s just say that I know what’s in my heart, and what’s in my gut, but I can’t put it into words because if I do I’ll be a mess, y’know?”

“You’re talking about Komoko.”

“You’re damned right I am.”

Jack nodded. “Then I’ve got kind of a working knowledge of the situation. I took your advice, remember? I’ve read your press clippings. One of them, anyway.”

“Which one?”

“The Playboy interview.”

“Oh, Jesus.” She actually blushed. “You didn’t.”

“So I know all about your adventures in the Gulf War, and a certain chopper pilot, and why you might be having a little trouble letting go of him.”

“I still can’t believe I said all that stuff to a reporter.” She shook her head. “It’s awful, isn’t it?”

“I enjoyed it. Especially the part where you threatened to plant a bomb in Hugh Hefner’s hot tub.”

“I’ll admit that was a little drastic. But the only thing that reporter wanted to know was if the Iraqis had raped me. He must have asked the question fifteen different ways. All that talk about plastique and timers shut him up.”

“You should try dealing with sportswriters sometime. Talking about plastique would only give those guys a hard-on.”

Jack was quiet for a moment. They were dancing around the important stuff now. If they were going anywhere- together-they had to get things straight.

“Cards on the table, okay?” he said.

She nodded.

“I want the money,” Jack said. “And that’s all I want. What do you want?”

“I want to get hold of Wyetta Earp. I want her to tell me where Vince Komoko is buried. And then I want to put a bullet between her eyes, and say my last goodbye to Vince, and get the hell out of Pipeline Beach, Arizona.”

“You don’t want the money?”

“No. If you’ll back me against Wyetta, you can have the money. I don’t want a dime.”

Jack thought about it.

He didn’t think long.

He said, “I think this might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

“Bogart you ain’t.” Kate drew the Heckler from her shoulder holster and handed it over. “But you’re going to need this.”

Jack set the gun on a table before it had a chance to go off by accident. “Uh. . about guns. There’s something I need to tell you. .”

Kate popped the Caddy’s trunk. The compartment was packed light with Ellis’s bootleg cellular phones. With Jack’s help she loaded them into the Dodge Dakota. All she’d say about it was, “Only two hundred and sixty shopping days until Christmas, champ.”

Jack hopped into Kate’s truck, and she drove him to the spot where he’d parked the Range Rover.

“I almost forgot,” he said as he climbed out. “If you see a big black guy with an African hat at the Riptide, kill him. He’s a hit man, and he’s after me.”

She shook her head. “Thanks for the update, champ.”

“Sure.”

“Any other late-breaking bulletins?”

“Nope … I think that about does it.”

“Then let’s get down to brass tacks.”

They headed toward Pipeline Beach-Jack in the Range Rover trailing Kate in the Dodge Dakota. About halfway between Ellis’s place and the Saguaro Riptide, they turned off the highway and followed a dirt road for a couple of miles. Kate pulled to a stop near an abandoned shack. Jack parked behind her.

She got out of the truck and chalked a man-sized outline on the side of the shack with a soft stone. Then she gave Jack a quick lesson with the Heckler. The cloud cover had drifted away from the moon, and the desert was painted with a tarnished glow. Jack set to work firing at the target while Kate returned to the truck and made some calls with one of Ellis’s phones.

Jack went through two boxes of Hydra-Shoks. He took a flashlight from the truck and inspected his work. He’d hit the shack plenty of times. But most of his shots had missed the target, which admittedly was closer in size to the Incredible Hulk than Wyetta Earp or Rorie Holloway.

Kate stood beside him. He hadn’t heard her coming.

She eyed the bullet holes in the side of the shack, little tsk-tsk-tsk sounds passing between her lips. Finally she said, “If you use the pistol, make sure you’re close enough to smell their perfume.”

“Maybe I should use the shotgun,” Jack suggested. “I’m more likely to hit something with it, right?”

Kate shook her head. “You’re more likely to hit me. Better stick with the pistol.”

Jack figured he’d save himself further embarrassment by changing the subject. “Who did you phone?”

“All our friends in Pipeline Beach. Wyetta still isn’t home. Neither is Rorie.”

“You think they’re waiting for us at the Riptide?”

“I think so. The heat’s on. They haven’t found the money, and now they’ve murdered Ellis. They’ll want us out of the picture. They won’t want anyone sniffing around the mess they’ve made.”

“Shit.” Jack ejected the clip from the Heckler and began reloading. He was all thumbs, though-slick little cartridges slipped between his fingers and dropped to the ground.

“Let me do that,” Kate said.

“Man,” Jack said. “I don’t think I’m cut out for this business. And if I get my ass killed by a woman named Wyetta Earp. . man oh man, talk about your embarrassing endings-”

“You’ll do fine.” Kate slapped the clip home and returned the pistol.

They were close now. Their eyes met-he had to look up because she was just a little taller than he was. Not a lot, just a little. His eyes were green and alive in the tarnished moonlight, and one corner of his mouth was kind of twitchy, like he couldn’t decide if he should smile or not, and she started to step away-

His hand found hers in the shadows. “Hey,” he said. “Just for luck, huh? Just because we’re doing this thing together.”

“Okay,” she whispered.

She kissed him. It had been a long time since she had kissed anyone. Since Vince. And Jack Baddalach was a good kisser. His lips were soft, and his mouth was warm, and he didn’t push her away, he drew her in, his arms around her, and her arms slipped around his waist and the kiss was slow and easy and wonderful.

They really took their time with it.

As if they had all the time in the world.

Their noses touched as their lips parted.

They let them touch like that for a long moment, staring into each other’s eyes.

Both smiled. Jack stepped back, hands drifting over her hips but not letting go just yet because he was a little dizzy and had to hold onto something.

“You’re something, Major Kate Benteen,” he said. “I never met anyone quite like you.”

His voice was as soft as his kiss, as soft as his hands on black leather.

Those hands were drifting away.

Kate found one of them. Held it in hers. Guided it to her breast.

Leather whispered in Jack Baddalach’s grasp.

“This outfit has thirteen zippers,” Kate said. “And every one of them works.”

Kate glanced at the pair of high beams in the rearview mirror. Baddalach was behind those headlights, following in the rented Range Rover.

God knew what he was thinking.

Kate knew what she was thinking: Goddamn-it just doesn’t get much more romantic than this. Off to kill a couple of gunslingin’ law-gals, but first let’s make a little love on an old horse blanket in the back of a Dodge Dakota. Snuggled up between a bunch of boxes filled with bootleg telephones, and not one drop of champagne between them, but who the hell needs champagne when you’ve got a tarnished moon in the sky and a hundred and seventy-five pounds of stud on top of you and good music on the radio.

An oldies station out of Tucson. Late night and hardly any commercials. The disc jockey must have known what was going on out there in the desert. He’d played “Surfer Girl” and “Sealed with a Kiss” and “Hurts So Bad.” Hell, he’d even played “Baby the Rain Must Fall.”

Kate bit her lower lip. She hadn’t felt this bad in a long time. This good, either. She hadn’t felt much of anything in nearly two years. She’d been running on that even keel, just sticking to a routine, taking things nice and easy and-

Damn, but it felt good to be with a man again.

Damn, but she was miserable.

Jack Baddalach. If only she had been with him. . and only him. His breath warm on her neck while the cool evening breeze brushed her brow, his lips finding hers in the shallow glow of moonlight.

If only she hadn’t closed her eyes and given in while her heart dredged up the memory of Vincent Komoko.

Because then it was Vince’s breath warming her neck while the cool evening breeze brushed her brow. Vince’s lips finding hers in the shallow glow of moonlight. .

The telepathic disc jockey up in Tucson was still in touch. He dropped the needle on Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely.” Kate turned off the radio.

“Goddamnit,” she said, slamming her palm against the steering wheel. “Goddamnit!”

Why did Jack Baddalach have to turn out to be such a fuckin’ nice guy, anyway?

Contents