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Tough Customer

A Novel

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The #1 New York Times bestselling author of Thick As Thieves “charges her characters and their relationships with electricity” (San Francisco Book Review) in this gripping novel of suspense.

When a deranged stalker attempts to murder her daughter Berry, Caroline King has no doubts about who to contact for help: Berry’s father, the cagey private investigator Dodge Hanley. It’s been thirty years since Dodge last saw Caroline, but she remains the one woman—among many—that he can’t forget. He has a whole bagful of grudging excuses for ignoring Caroline’s call—and one compelling reason to drop everything and fly down to Texas to protect the daughter he’s never met: guilt.

As always, Dodge’s perseverance knows no bounds as he teams with a small-town sheriff, but the alarming situation worsens when the stalker claims other victims, leaving a trail of clues lethally pointing toward Berry. And Dodge—a street-smart fighter who has always put his life on the line—realizes that this time, he’s risking his heart as well.

Tough Customer CHAPTER
1
WHEN HIS CELL PHONE’S JINGLE PULLED HIM from a deep sleep, Dodge figured the caller was Derek. Likely his employer had had one of his famous middle-of-the-night brainstorms and wanted Dodge to act upon it immediately.

Dodge couldn’t think of what might be so crucial that it couldn’t keep till daylight, but Derek paid him to be on twenty-four-hour call, if for no other reason than to act as a sounding board.

He fumbled for his phone in the dark and, without even opening his eyes, figuring he was about to be sent out on an errand he wasn’t in the mood for, answered with an unfriendly and unenthusiastic “Yeah?”

“Dodge?”

Surprised to hear a woman’s voice, he sat up and swung his feet to the floor. He reached through the darkness for the lamp switch and turned it on. Using his lips, he pulled a cigarette from the pack, then flicked on his lighter. As he took his first inhale, he wondered which woman, among the vast number with whom he was acquainted, he had pissed off this time. He didn’t remember getting on anyone’s fighting side recently, but maybe that was his transgression—disremembering.

Since he hadn’t yet responded to his name, his caller asked with uncertainty, “Have I reached Dodge Hanley?”

He was reluctant to confirm it before he knew who was asking. He preferred keeping a low profile. He had a driver’s license because it was a necessity. He carried a single credit card, but it had been issued in Derek’s name. Dodge used it only when doing business for the law firm. Privately, he operated strictly on a cash basis, and not even Derek knew his home address.

“Dodge? Is that you?”

He replied with a sound that was half word, half dry cough. “Yeah.”

“This is Caroline.”

His lighter slid from his fingers and fell to the floor.

“Caroline King.”

As if she needed to specify which Caroline. As if she needed to jog his memory.

After a long moment, she said, “Are you still there?”

He sucked tobacco smoke into his lungs and exhaled as he said, “Yeah. Yeah.” To prove to himself that the call wasn’t part of a dream, he stood up and took a few steps away from the bed. But because his legs were so shaky, he backed up and sat down again on the sagging mattress.

“Fair to say that you’re surprised to hear from me?”

“Yeah.” That seemed to be the only word he was capable of uttering. How many Yeahs did that make now? Four? Five?

“I apologize for the hour,” she said. “It’s late here, and I realize it’s an hour later in Atlanta. I mean, I assume you’re still in Atlanta.”

“Yeah.” Six.

“How are you? Are you well?”

“Yeah.” Shit! Had he forgotten the language? Find some other words for crissake! “Uh, I’m okay. You know. Okay.”

He was okay except for a total brain shutdown, a heart rate that had shot off the charts, and a sudden inability to breathe. He groped for the ashtray among the clutter on his nightstand and laid the cigarette in it.

“That’s good,” she said. “I’m glad to hear it.”

Then neither of them said anything for so long that the silence began to hum.

Finally she said, “Dodge, I never would have bothered you if not for . . . I would never ask you for anything. I imagine you know that. But this is vitally important. Urgent.”

Jesus. She was sick. She was dying. She needed a liver, a kidney, his heart.

Plowing his fingers up through his hair, he cupped his forehead in his palm and, dreading the answer, asked, “What’s the matter? Are you sick?”

“Sick? No, no. Nothing like that.”

Relief made him weak. Then he got angry, because—just like that—he’d become emotionally invested. To counter his stupid susceptibility, he asked impatiently, “Then why are you calling me?”

“I have a situation here that I don’t know how to handle.”

“Situation?”

“Trouble.”

“What kind of trouble?”

“Can you come?”

“To Houston?” A place to which he swore he would never return. “What for?”

“It’s complicated.”

“What about your husband? Is it too complicated for him? Or is he the problem?”

A few seconds ticked by. Then, “He passed away, Dodge. Several years ago.”

This news filled his ears, his head, with pressure. Her husband was dead. She was no longer married. He hadn’t known, but then why would he? It wasn’t like she would have sent him an announcement.

While his ears thrummed, he waited for her to say more about her husband’s demise. When she didn’t, he said, “You still haven’t told me the nature of this trouble.”

“The kind you specialize in.”

“That covers a lot of ground.”

“I don’t want to go into it now, Dodge. Can I count on you to be here?”

“When do you need me?”

“As soon as you can get here. Will you come?”

Her stubborn refusal to be more specific pissed him off. “Probably not.”

A hostile silence quivered between them. He picked up his cigarette again, inhaled deeply, blew it out. He wanted to hang up on her. Wished he would. Wished he could.

Quietly she said, “I understand your reluctance to become involved. Truly I do.”

“Well, what did you expect, Caroline?”

“I don’t know what I expected. I acted on impulse without thinking it through.”

“You call me in the middle of the freakin’ night. You tell me shit, but I’m supposed to drop everything and come running to get you out of some kind of unspecified trouble?” He paused for effect, then said, “Wait. Why is this sounding familiar to me? Is this sounding familiar to you?”

She responded exactly as he’d expected her to: with pique. “I’m not asking you to help me, Dodge.”

“Well, good. Because—”

“It’s Berry who’s in trouble.”

• • •

“Looks like somebody actually cooks in here now.” Dodge sat down at Derek and Julie’s breakfast table in their organized but well-used kitchen. “Didn’t used to.”

Derek laughed. “I don’t recall ever turning on the oven before Julie and I got married.” He lifted the coffeemaker carafe with an implied offer of some.

“Sure,” Dodge said. “Two sugars. The real stuff.”

Derek carried over the mug of coffee along with the sugar bowl, a spoon, and a cloth napkin. Dodge fingered the fringe on the napkin’s hem and looked at his employer with raised brows.

“Julie insists on cloth.”

Dodge snuffled as he scooped sugar into his mug. “She actually use all those gizmos?”

Derek followed Dodge’s gaze to the ceramic jug that held some of Julie’s cooking utensils. “Yep. They’ve got a gadget for everything. You wouldn’t believe.”

“Where is she?”

“Upstairs throwing up.”

Dodge blew on his coffee and took a sip. “That sucks.”

“No, she’s actually glad about it.”

“She enjoys puking?”

“Morning sickness is a good sign. It means the embryo has latched on to the lining of her uterus, which creates all kinds of hormonal chaos, which causes the nausea, which—”

“Thank you,” Dodge grumbled into his coffee mug. “I don’t want to know anything about Julie’s uterus. In fact, I’d just as soon keep the mysteries of human reproduction mysterious.”

“I thought I heard your voice.” Julie entered the kitchen and smiled at Dodge. She looked the picture of health despite her bout of nausea. “It’s awfully early for you to be up and about, isn’t it? Especially on a Saturday.”

“Sounds like you’ve had a rough morning.”

“I don’t mind so much. It’ll pass soon, and the sickness is a good sign, the result of the embryo latching on.”

Derek laughed. “We’ve been over that. Dodge doesn’t want to hear any more.”

“Fair enough.” She asked if Derek had offered their guest something to eat to go with his coffee, and when he said no, she sliced him a piece of pound cake, which he accepted, knowing what a great cook she was.

Through his second bite, he mumbled, “If I’d married you, I’d have gained twenty pounds by now.”

“Have you seen Derek naked lately?”

“Hey!” Her husband of six months smacked her on the fanny, then pulled her into his lap, bounced her on his knees, and nuzzled her neck, saying, “You’re the one getting chubby.” He splayed his hand on her abdomen, which as yet showed no signs of the pregnancy. She placed her hand over his, and they exchanged a warm, meaningful look.

Dodge cleared his throat. “Y’all need me to leave the room, or what?”

Julie slipped off her husband’s lap and took a chair across the table from Dodge. “No, I’m glad you’re here. Derek sees you nearly every day, but I don’t get to.”

Dodge ribbed his boss about his honeymoon giddiness, but he was glad about the marital happiness these two had found with each other. Derek and Julie Mitchell were among the very few people on the planet that Dodge had even a limited tolerance for. He’d go so far as to say he respected and liked them, although, as with everyone he knew, he kept them at arm’s length, more for their sake than for his own. He wasn’t good for people. Something in his makeup was destructive.

“What brings you by?”

Derek’s question seemed innocuous enough, but Dodge knew better. Derek had razor-sharp instincts and uncanny intuition, which served him well in his chosen profession of defense attorney. Despite their easy chitchat, his boss had sensed that something was out of joint. When was the last time Dodge had come calling early on a Saturday morning? Never.

Dodge shrugged with feigned indifference and sipped his coffee, nursing a twinge of uneasiness about having to lie to this man who was the closest thing he had to a friend.

“How pissed would you be if I asked for some time off?” He kept his eyes fixed on the contents of his coffee mug but sensed the puzzled glance Derek exchanged with his wife.

“I wouldn’t be pissed,” Derek said. “You’ve earned the vacation time.”

“Think before you speak, Counselor. Because I don’t want to get somewhere and have you phoning me in the middle of the night, asking me to run down some lowlife that—”

“Dodge. You won’t get an argument from me. You’re past due a vacation. If something comes up while you’re away, it can wait till you get back.”

“Like hell it can. Even if you say it’s okay for me to go, those hotshots you’ve got working for you would have a fit. They don’t address me unless it’s with ‘Dodge, when . . . ?’ As in, When can you get that background info for me? When can I expect the skinny on this guy? When can you track that down?”

Derek said, “Everyone in the office depends on you.”

“See, that’s what I’m talking about. If I left for a few days, the whole damn firm would collapse.”

Dodge had been of considerable help solving the case in which Julie had been involved. The murder of Paul Wheeler had been a tragedy in every sense except that it had brought Julie and Derek together. Initially, Dodge had suspected Julie of being a liar, manipulator, and worse. She’d borne his hostility and suspicion with dignity and now seemed to hold no grudge. He thought she might even like him a little.

It was to her that he shifted his gaze now. But maybe that was a mistake, because she was regarding him with concern, which, in his present frame of mind, was almost more dangerous than her husband’s incisiveness.

“I hope your reason for needing time away isn’t health related,” she said softly.

“Like what, dying of lung cancer? No, no, I’m not,” he said when her concern was replaced by alarm. “Not that I know of. Not yet.” He shifted in the seat of his chair and patted his shirt pocket, reassuring himself that the pack of cigarettes was there, even though he’d just as well pee on the Mona Lisa as light up in their kitchen.

Back to Derek, he said, “Forget it. I knew better than to ask.” Placing his hand over his heart, he said, “The firm needs me, and, if I’m loyal to nothing else, I’m loyal to Mitchell and Associates.”

“Cut the crap. What’s going on?”

“Going on? Nothing. I got this notion to—”

“Take some time off, and I said okay. But now you’re arguing with me for saying yes, fine, go. Why?”

“No why to it. It was a dumb idea, that’s all. I thought of slipping off somewhere for a few days, but . . .”

“Did you have a destination in mind?” Derek grinned. “One of those tropical islands you’re always talking about. National Geographic–type places where all the women go topless?”

“I wish.”

“Then where?”

“Buttfuck, Texas.”

Dodge could have kicked himself for blurting that out. He hadn’t meant to.

Derek stared at him for several seconds, then deadpanned, “Does that have a zip code?”

Dodge rolled his shoulders. “Doesn’t matter. I’m not going.”

No one said anything for several moments, and Dodge sensed another mystified look pass between Derek and Julie. She asked, “What’s in Texas?”

“Texans.”

His droll reply didn’t have the jocular effect he’d hoped for. He looked at Julie again, and he didn’t know what the hell it was that was drawing him to her this morning. Sure, she was and always had been easy on the eyes, but that hormonal ruckus taking place inside her was inspiring in Dodge all kinds of sentimentality that went against his nature.

Typically when someone asked him a personal question, even something as innocuous as “What’s in Texas?” he would tell them to stay out of his effin’ life. But he found himself answering Julie simply. “Business.”

Derek reacted with a start. “Business?”

“Relax, Counselor. I’m not looking into another job. This is business of a personal nature.”

“A personal nature.”

“Jesus, is there an echo in here?” he asked crossly. “Why are you making a big deal of it anyway? Business of a personal nature could be constipation.”

“I’ve just never known you to have personal business of any kind, but especially not in Texas.”

“Well, that just goes to show that you don’t know everything, doesn’t it? Besides, why are we still talking about it? I’m not going. I’d get down there, and this goddamn cell phone would start buzzing like a band saw. You’d be asking me how soon I could get back. Not worth it. Forget I asked.” He tossed his fringed napkin on the table and stood up. “Look, thanks for the coffee. Tasty cake, Julie. I gotta be shoving off.”

“Sit down.”

“Excuse me?”

The set of Derek’s jaw was resolute. “You’re not leaving this house until you tell us what the hell is going on.”

“I told you. I got this notion to—”

“This isn’t about vacation time. Sit down.”

Dodge dropped back into his chair. But with attitude. After several moments of hostile glaring, he raised his shoulders. “What?”

“Do you remember when I told you about Julie and me?” Derek asked.

“About the flight from Paris?”

“Precisely. I admitted to you why I was compromised and couldn’t represent Creighton Wheeler. I bared my soul to you because I knew I could trust you with my deepest, darkest secret. With my career. My life.”

“Okay. So?”

“So that trustworthiness works both ways, Dodge. You have our confidence. What’s going on?” Derek waited, and when Dodge didn’t say anything, he added, “Must be something really important, or you wouldn’t have put on such a dog-and-pony show about vacation time. You’re here because you wanted to tell us something and didn’t know how to go about it.”

“You’re a shrink now, too? Being Georgia’s hottest trial lawyer isn’t enough for you anymore?”

Derek didn’t flinch.

“What’s in Texas, Dodge?” Julie asked again.

Her softness of voice got to him as Derek’s badgering never could have. His shoulders slumped in defeat. “Not what. Who.”

“Okay, who’s in Texas?”

He avoided looking at both of them as he picked up his mug and walked it over to the sink, where he poured the contents down the drain. “My daughter.” He felt their astonishment even before he turned around and saw their shocked expressions.

Derek said, “You don’t have a daughter.”

“Yeah, I do.”

“Since when?”

“Since thirty years ago,” Dodge said.

Derek shook his head to clear it. “You specifically told me that you didn’t have a daughter.”

“No I didn’t.”

“Dodge, I remember the conversation. You were checking into Creighton Wheeler’s background. You told me that, based on what you’d learned about him, you wouldn’t want your daughter dating him. And I said, ‘You don’t have a daughter.’ And you said, ‘If I did.’”

“See? You’re the one who said I didn’t, not me.”

“But you implied it.”

“Sue me.”

“This quarreling isn’t very constructive, is it?” Julie divided her reproach between the two of them, landing on Dodge. “We’re just surprised, Dodge. You’ve mentioned a couple of ex-wives, but never children.”

“Not children. Child. One.”

He looked down at his shoes, wondered when they’d last been shined. If they’d ever been shined. He really should have them buffed at least. Maybe, if he had time at the airport . . .

Airport? Airport, hell. He wasn’t going.

“When did you last see her?” Julie asked.

“On her birthday.”

“Her last birthday?”

He shook his head. “Her actual one. The day she was born.”

Their stunned silence teemed with questions he didn’t want to answer. But Derek had the tenacity of a bulldog. “So why are you considering going to see her now?”

“I’m not.”

“For the sake of argument, let’s assume you are.”

Dodge chewed on his inner cheek with annoyance and indecision, then heard himself telling them that his daughter had got herself into a jam. “I don’t know the details, but it’s a police matter. And her . . . Somebody thought that maybe, with my background, I could help out. But I don’t think so, and, anyway, why would I want to?”

Derek and Julie continued to look at him, their gazes admonishing and speaking volumes. Lowering his head, he dug into his eye sockets with his thumb and middle finger, then dropped his hand and sighed. “Shit, shit, and double shit.”
© Andrew Eccles

Sandra Brown is the author of seventy-two New York Times bestsellers, has published over eighty novels, and has upwards of eighty million copies of her books in print worldwide. Her work has been translated into thirty-five languages. Four books have been adapted for film. She lives in Texas.

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