Thursday, May 14, 2009

Minimal Investment: Exile, Texas by Rachel Caine (Chapter One)

Rachel Caine is giving us a free online novel. She's licensed it under the usual Creative Commons license, Attribution-Non-Commercial-Sharealike 2.5 license. I think this'd be perfect for minimal investment because each chapter is about the same length as a short story!

Title: Exile, Texas (Chapter One)
Author: Rachel Caine
Word Count: 4979

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Dan Fox is a small town Texas deputy who’s moved to Exile to put some serious personal issues behind him; the sheriff is a college friend, and how much trouble can there be in a dying, dusty town? Not much ... until town outcast Megan Leary comes blasting back through the city limits, digging up long-buried town secrets and setting off a chain reaction of events that leads to arson, abduction, and murder. When Dan starts to fall for her, he’s in for a world of hurt ... and so is she.


I first saw the silver Lexus in my rear view mirror as I was writing up my ninth ticket of the day. Ticketing speeders on small state highways, like the ones I patrolled, was sort of a catch and release system: tourist conservation. Unless it was breaking the land speed record, I was inclined to let the Lexus go about its business. Too many tickets in a morning looked, well, overzealous.

Truth was, I sympathized with speeders. There isn’t much else to do out in the middle of Nowhere, Texas; not many cars to bother you, not much to look at but orange-brown sand and spiky mesquite bush, and a whole lot of clear, clean, bowl-shaped sky. The Lexus would flash its brakes as soon as it saw me sitting in the shadow of the John Birch Society billboard. They all did.

I was still signing ticket number nine when the silver Lexus blasted past me like a mirage, shimmering, the exact color of the early winter sun. She hadn’t hit the brakes, she’d hit the gas, and if it wasn’t a land speed record it was certainly a contender. I handed over the ticket, waved the tan SUV on its way, and got back in the car.

The Lexus was still hauling ass.

All right, I thought, and flipped on the lights. If you want it this way . . .

I chased her for about three miles before I caught up. She—I was fairly sure the driver was a she—played hard to get, buzzing along for a good thirty seconds or so before she flared brake lights and pulled off to the shoulder in a orange swirl of dust. I parked behind her, left the lights flashing, and reached for the radio.

“Dispatch, this is Nine,” I said. It still felt odd. In Houston, where I’d come up as a patrolman and until recently worked as a detective, radio cars had, well, bigger numbers. And nine was deceptive anyway. There were only four cars in the whole department. There’d probably only been a total of nine since the invention of the internal combustion engine. “Dispatch, come on back.”

“Go, Nine,” Farlene said, out of breath. Probably back from one of her fifteen visits to the coffeepot a day. She was one of those addicts who claimed drinking coffee made them sleep like a baby. To my mind, it was about the same as a drunk claiming he drove better that way.

“I got a routine speeder stop, silver Lexus, Texas license DLX-079, about a thousand yards past the town limits sign.” I watched the Lexus. It wasn’t moving. The shadow of the driver inside wasn’t moving, either. A lot of people started fumbling around for license and insurance, but not this one. Stone cold quiet.

“Uh, roger that, Dan. Ya’ll want me to run the check?” Farlene loved running plates, and while I didn’t expect to find anything on the Lexus, it would be good manners to let her. I watched the Lexus idle, meek and sleek. No premonitions about it, just the vague ever-present hope that I wouldn’t get shot when I walked up to it.

“Yeah, Farlene, better do that,” I said. “Thanks. Nine, out.”

I settled my still-new hat more comfortably and stepped out of the patrol car into the mild winter day. I took my time strolling up to the driver. Nice top-of-the-line Lexus, blurred with a good coat of road dust. Hard to say how far it had come, but the dealer’s decal on the back said Dallas. Unusual. We didn’t get many from Dallas out this way; they kept to the interstate, where the drive was no less boring but the McDonald’s and 7-Eleven stops were more frequent.

People from big cities complain about the demise of small towns and those charming mom-and-pop operations, and avoid them every chance they get.

The window rolled down on the Lexus as I stepped up to the driver’s side window, and I got my first look at the driver. She was in her thirties, with dark, smooth, straight hair that fell like silk around her face and eyes the blue of a blowtorch flame. Her skin was as pale and perfect as milk, Snow White skin. No rose red lips, though; hers were tinted a delicate shade of lilac that matched her eye shadow.

The strength of will in her eyes was a shot of liquid nitrogen down my spine. I had to take a deep breath to get my heart going again. Those blue eyes could look innocent, at first glance; when I blinked, they were flat, cynical, and suspicious.

“Going pretty fast, Miss,” I said. It was a come-on line number one, police-wise, and I winced when I realized I’d said it. She tilted her head slightly, looking at me; I had a strange feeling she was trying to place me, as if we’d met before. “Turn the engine off, please.”

She complied. The purr of the Lexus died away, leaving only the whisper of the wind and the dry, steady click of the lights flashing on my cruiser. I smelled perfume, something expensive, applied lightly.

It hit me, like a late sucker punch, that she was maybe the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen in the flesh.

“License and insurance, please,” I asked. She handed them over so quickly she must have had them ready. I was beginning to be glad I’d had Farlene check on this one. There was such a thing as being too composed, and she was the poster child for it. I looked at the picture—a good one, for a wonder, and most definitely her—and the name. “Megan Leary?”

“Sorry, I don’t give autographs.” She had a smoke-and-bourbon voice, like a forties movie star, and the attitude to match. It was like she was daring me to write her up. While I was thinking about it, the radio beeped for attention. I went back to it, leaned in, and answered.

“Nine, go.”

“Dan!” Something had gotten Farlene all excited, too excited to use codes that were mostly posturing anyway in a town that just barely qualified as a wide spot in the road. “Dan, you stay right there, and don’t you let that woman go. Deputy Peyser’s coming out to meet you. You keep her there.”

Now, that was gravely unusual. Deputy Peyser was the sort of guy who patrolled donut shops and liquor stores, who every once in a while smacked the town drunk around to make himself feel like a cop. If Peyser was interested in my ice maiden, I felt sorry for her already.

“Driver’s license says Megan Leary,” I said. “That check out?”

Farlene let a three- or four-second delay go by before she said, “That’s her. Peyser’ll take care of this, Dan. You just let him, hear?”

She sounded nervous. I was starting to sweat, too, and I didn’t even know why. I studied Megan Leary’s license, but it didn’t tell me anything besides her height—5’7”—and the color of her eyes, which was authentically blue. No hidden messages. What the hell was going on?

It would take Peyser about five minutes to make it from the other side of town. I should, I decided, at least go back and make small talk. The fact that she was about as gorgeous as Venus had nothing whatsoever to do with that decision, of course.

She was still sitting there, window down, looking as sharp and cold as a new diamond.

“Problem?” she asked. I handed her back her insurance card but held on to her driver’s license.

“No, ma’am. You heading into Exile?”

The look she gave me was a letter-perfect mix of contempt and sophistication. “I might be. Why? Need a date for the prom?”

Ouch. I felt a surge of anger and tamped it down hard. When someone works this hard to be disliked, there had to be a reason for it, and the reasons were almost always interesting. “No ma’am, just trying to be welcoming. Exile’s a nice little town. You ought to take a look if you have some time. Nice historical sites.”

She had a hell of a smile, but it had a scary serrated edge. “Jail and courthouse. I’ve toured.”

Okay, there was definitely something going on here, sharks swimming in deep currents. Get out of the water, Danny-boy, before you get something bit off that don’t grow back.

Her eyes flicked down to my name tag, as if she was still trying to remember me. “Deputy Fox?”

“Dan Fox,” I said, and managed not to blurt out something stupid like pleased to meet you. My imagination kept wandering into a Penthouse Letters zip code I knew I was never going to visit.

“Well, you’re new around here.” She sounded absolutely sure about it. “How long?”

“Three months,” I said. Her smile turned acidic.

“Wow, you must be the first man to actually move into this dump in twenty years. You honestly don’t know who I am.”

“No, ma’am.”

“They’re slipping. They should have at least mentioned my name by now.”

“They who?”

She looked in the rear view mirror at the same time another cruiser was pulling over the horizon from town, its lights flashing hot pursuit to an empty road. As I looked back at her, I saw something in her face I didn’t expect. Maybe sadness. Maybe a touch of fear. It was gone so quick I couldn’t really put a name to it.

“I guess we’re about to see,” she said, and waited while the second cruiser pulled to a halt behind mine, spewing more dust, and the driver’s side door slapped open.

I should probably say something at this point about Deputy Lewis Peyser. Take the ugliest English bulldog you’ve ever seen, stretch him out man-length, give him a half a good brain and a nasty sense of humor, and you will not have Lew Peyser, because Lew Peyser is not half so smart nor half that pretty. The reason he was a Deputy Sheriff—and we were equal in rank—was that he had been a hometown football hero. Small towns tended to like that in law enforcement officers.

I watched him get out of the car and felt a little shiver right through me. This is it, I thought. This is the day Peyser and me have to do the I-don’t-like-you tango. It had been coming ever since I’d walked in the door of the Exile County Sheriff’s Office, but the music had never cued just right. Today, they were definitely playing our song.

He gave me a sour glance, hitched up his pants, and did his usual John Wayne strut toward the victim.

“I got this one.” He flung it over his shoulder at me like a dirty towel. “You head on back to the station. Tell Jimmy Sparkman I’m taking care of his little problem.”

Now, I had a choice. I could do the wise thing, get back in my cruiser, forget the name of Megan Leary, and coast along in my new home of Exile, Texas . . . or I could follow my gut. My gut was very unhappy.

I stepped back from the car and said, “All the same to you, Lew, I’ll stick around. In case you need me.”

Before we could get into it with me any deeper, Megan Leary did something that she must have known was stupid.

She got out of the car.

It became immediately apparent to me that if she was five-foot-seven, five-foot-three of that had to be legs. Her skirt—all four or five inches of it—rode the edge of decency; hell, in Exile they still put drapes around table legs. After the pleasant shock wore off, it was the cold, ruthlessly controlled look in her eyes unsettled me. I’d thought Peyser’s attitude was dangerous, but this woman’s could shave steel. She shut the driver’s side door, leaned back against it, and crossed her arms. Cocked her head at Peyser as he finally made his stand, about as late and unlucky as Custer.

“Buford,” she said. She had a low, throaty, musical voice, maroon velvet and sandalwood. That didn’t make her tone any friendlier. “I should have known you’d be driving the welcome wagon.”

“You took the wrong turn back there, Meg, so you’d best get in your fancy car and drive right back the way you came.” Peyser’s blowtorch intimidation—usually enough to melt glass—bounced off. “And in case you forgot, my middle name’s Bruford. Call me Buford again and somebody’s going to be pickin’ up teeth.”

Meg gave him a strange little half-smile.” Call your dentist, Buford.”

He took a step at her, and I tensed. Meg raised her chin, practically daring him to punch it. Oh, man, I thought. Here it comes.

Instead of punching he reached out and grabbed her shoulder, spun her around to face the car, and kicked her feet apart. Hassling her over a traffic stop was a stretch, but it wasn’t abusive. Quite.

“Assume it, Miss Leary,” he said, and grinned. “Not like you ain’t got experience at this kind of thing.”

If she spread her feet any further apart, that skirt was going to violate state decency laws. Peyser starting patting her down.

Megan Leary turned her head and met my eyes. It felt like being plugged into a two-twenty outlet. It was like she was looking into my soul, and I had never felt so naked—so unprepared—in my entire life.

Peyser’s hands slid down her waist, over the smooth curve of her hips. Oh, Jesus. This couldn’t be happening. Peyser wasn’t patting her down for a weapon, he was feeling her up. Oh, man, don’t do this to me. I don’t want to be in the middle of this.

But I was. No question about it.

She was still watching me. Wind blew strands of dark hair across her ice-pale cheek, and her eyes were no longer cool and distracted. They were angry and focused and vulnerable, and they asked a question I really didn’t want to face.

What the hell was I planning to do about this?

“Peyser,” I said. He ignored me. “Peyser!”

Peyser shoved her harder against the car. It was unmistakable now, he was pressed up against her, and he had his hand up her skirt. This had gone way past boys-will-be-boys. We weren’t just bending the law, we were shredding it. We. In ten years of law enforcement, I was never part of the we.

“Shut up and stand there,” he snarled at me. “Get the point, Meg? Want to push this any more, or are you going to be a good little bitch and get out of my town?”

Her eyes locked on me and refused to let me go. And then—incredibly—she smiled.

“Fuck you, Buford,” she said, and threw an elbow back into Peyser’s grinning face. His head snapped back, and blood spurted; he howled and grabbed his nose, stumbling away.

There was a big Freightliner semi barreling down the highway, smashing the speed limit. Two more steps back, and Peyser was going to be a grille ornament.

Meg turned, grabbed him by the shirt front, and dragged him to a halt just as the semi flashed by, raising a stinging whirlwind of dust that blew Peyser’s hat off. Meg let go of him, and moved back out of grabbing range.

She turned to me.

Dust swirled and settled, leaving the sky as bright and clean as a new-washed plate. Her eyes were just the opposite, opaque with anger, the cold blue steel of a Saturday Night Special. I thought she was going to slug me. At the last second she turned her back to me and put her hands together behind her.

Waiting for her handcuffs.

As I snapped them on her, she said, “You might want to take my gun, Deputy Fox.”

There ought to be a law against a felon having a voice like that, a purr like velvet, a core of abrasive concrete. I reached inside her jacket and found a very nice Beretta that was warm from her heat. I pulled the magazine. Full and gleaming.

“I guess you’d have a permit for that,” I said.

“Sure. Front jacket pocket.”

Peyser was watching us with rabid eyes, holding a handkerchief to his nose. I fished out her leather wallet and flipped it open. She liked a little drama, because it was the kind of wallet that did flip, and she had a gold badge and a picture ID. The picture ID certified her as a Licensed Private Investigator in the State of Texas. The badge, which looked a lot like the one pinned to my uniform, said the same thing.
Behind the ID card was one certifying her permit to carry. I nodded and pocketed the wallet, too.

“You’re under arrest,” Peyser mumbled around the handkerchief. He looked, if anything, madder than before. “Read the bitch her goddamn rights.”

“In a minute,” I said. “Tell you what, Miss Leary, why don’t you just have a seat in my car for a few minutes. I need to talk to the Deputy.”

I saw her settled in the back seat of the cruiser and came around to where Peyser was mopping at his swollen nose. He was going to have two nasty shiners. I retrieved his hat from the spiky arms of a mesquite bush, then leaned against the bumper next to him and studied the view. In the distance, the purple shadow of Guadalupe Peak smudged the horizon.

“Resisting arrest,” he muttered. “Broke my damn nose.”

“Don’t think you’d want to file on that.” I studied the toes of my boots, the drifts of sand. Leary’s footprints were sharp little triangles with pinpoint heels like exclamation points. “I can’t back you up.”

“You what?” He took the handkerchief away from his nose to almost shout it at me; his nose started flowing bright red down his chin. “Goddamn it!”

“Tip your head back,” I said, and handed him a fresh hankie. “Look, the way I see it, you stick your hand in a woman’s skirt, you got to figure you have an elbow or two coming.”

I could feel menace coming off of him like heat from an oven. “You don’t want to get in my face about this. You really don’t.”

“No, I don’t,” I said quietly. “But I will.”

That hung there in the air like a black smear of diesel exhaust.

“Want to tell me what’s going on?” I said.

“None of your goddamn business,” he whispered. He sounded tired now, and in pain. “You just stay the hell out of it. You be a good boy and drive her up to that station, let me take care of those charges.”

I walked back to where Megan Leary waited in the cruiser, those fabulous legs crossed. I helped her out again, turned her around, and unlocked the cuffs.

“Hey!” Peyser yelled. I dug her wallet and license out of my pocket and handed them back to her. “Fox, you asshole—”

“Sorry about the trouble, ma’am,” I said. “You be careful on the road.”

She considered it for a few long seconds, her eyes steady on mine; I didn’t mind the wait. It gave me time to notice green flecks in those blue eyes, like fine Indian turquoise.

“You watch your back, Deputy Dan,” she said, and turned away.

She got back in the Lexus, stroked the engine to a deep-throated purr, and pulled out onto the highway. Heading for town.

I looked across the cruiser’s hood at Peyser, who dabbed one final time at his swollen nose and looked at me with piggy, mean, distrustful eyes.

“You got no idea what you’ve done,” he said. “No idea.”

Peyser was wrong about a lot of things, but he was absolutely right about that.

* * * * *

I followed the tail lights of Peyser’s cruiser into town and up to the big looming building that was the Exile County Courthouse. Both an eyesore and the most important historical building in town, it had seen the birth of the Republic of Texas, celebrated statehood, survived fire and economic famine. The Sheriff’s Office was two floors up, tucked into one of the turrets that jutted out from the faux-castle walls. State of the art plumbing for 1922. We were lucky the electrical worked well enough to power two computers, a fax machine, and a ten-cup coffee maker.

Peyser bulled his way ahead of me once we came through the swinging wooden doors and beelined for the Sheriff’s Office. I heard him start yelling, “Your damn wet-behind-the-ears city boy—” just before he slammed the door behind him. I was left standing there and wondering who it was I should go complain to; the only person around was Farlene, the secretary/dispatcher, who was putting the finishing touches on what looked like a whole new filing system. Farlene had taken a computer class a few months back, and it had gone right to her head; she was now computerizing everything, whether it was useful or not.

Her head might have been down in the files, but Farlene didn’t miss much. She glanced up at me, at the Sheriff’s Office behind her, and asked, “Nice set of shiners on Pit Bull. Tell me it wasn’t you, I was just starting to like you, darlin’.”

“Not me,” I said. I leaned on the railing that corralled her desk. “So what’s the deal with Megan Leary?”

In Sheriff Sparkman’s office, Peyser paced and waved his arms. I couldn’t see the Sheriff, but I could hear the occasional word and phrase from Peyser. My name came up, not flatteringly.

Farlene leaned back in her chair and smiled at me. She still had a young face, though I’d heard a rumor she was pushing fifty. I’d been warned about Farlene, first thing, on the morning I’d shown up for the job in Exile. Don’t go there, Jimmy had said. She’s got a husband who’s meaner than Genghis Khan, and she loves to tease. I hadn’t gone there, but I’d been offered the road map often enough.

Farlene drummed inch-and-a-half polka-dot-painted fingernails on file folders. “I don’t think you’re going to want to get into this Meg Leary mess, Dan. Let us handle it.”


“You know, those from around here. Like the Chief.”

The Chief being Sheriff Jimmy Sparkman, the principal reason I was in Exile. He’d started off a deputy, worked his way to the top by virtue of being smarter and fairer than any potential rivals. We’d been best friends in college, a long time ago, before he’d gone back to his home town and I’d gone on to the bright lights of Houston. He had lines on his face now, not all of them smile lines, and the fair hair had receded like the Houston tide, but he’d hung on as sheriff. People liked him. People trusted him.

Which made the mystery of Megan Leary even deeper, because I didn’t for one second believe Jimmy Sparkman would “handle” anything in the way Farlene was implying.

The Chief’s door slammed open, and Peyser came out. The bruises were just starting to fill in, and I’d been right, he was going to have a sunset delight of a pair of shiners. He’d shoved cotton balls up his nose, which didn’t strengthen his resemblance to Clark Gable.

What unsettled me was that he looked triumphant. I tried not to care.

“Dan. In here.” Jimmy Sparkman stood in the doorway. He looked just as sober and thoughtful as ever, but there was something in his eyes that made the hair stand up on the back of my neck.

I pushed open the swinging gate and went in to talk to the Chief.

He moved a folder full of old newspaper clippings off to the side, leaned back, and put his feet up on the desk. Should have looked casual, but it didn’t. There was a long silence. It got longer. I felt myself break out in a fresh coat of sweat, and wondered what I’d done in a previous life to deserve this. I’d only been in town for three months, and it wasn’t the kind of place a guy like me made instant buddies. Sparkman had hired me after I’d crashed and burned in Houston, and that meant I owed him. I didn’t like owing anybody, and I didn’t like the fact that I might have cost myself not only a job but a friendship.

Sparkman’s eyes drilled a hole in my skull. When I was well and truly worried, he finally said, “Lew said she punched him in the nose while resisting arrest. He said you let her go.”

“He left out some stuff in the middle,” I said. Sparkman nodded. He didn’t ask what that might have been.

“I should have stopped him from going out there in the first place. Don’t worry about it,” he said. As simple as that. I sighed and nodded. My eyes roamed around his desk, looking for something to do, and I saw the newspaper clippings he’d tossed aside. The top one read SWEETLAND BOX FACTORY DESTROYED, and the date was 1983 or 1984, I couldn’t tell from my angle. There were other articles, too. Lots of ‘em. I wondered what termite nest Jimmy was digging into; he’d always been a curious guy.

He dragged me out of speculation with a direct question. “So. What did you think of her?”

He picked up a baseball off the corner of his desk. It had signatures all over it, but I’d never asked what team had signed it. He tossed it in the air, caught it, kept his eyes on the ball.

I said, “Cool. Collected. Hell of a mouth on her.”

“Go on.” I hadn’t surprised him yet. I watched him toss the ball and timed my next comment.

“She’s a licensed PI with a gun.”

He didn’t drop it, but he bobbled the catch. He looked at me with true alarm.

“Tell me you’re kidding.”

“I checked the carry permit. She’s legal.”

“Jesus. She say anything at all about what she was doing in town?” I shook my head. He tossed the baseball to me, and I caught it one-handed. “You want me to remind you again that you’re a just a deputy here, Dan?”

“You don’t need to.”

“You’re not a hot-shit Houston detective anymore, you do remember that?”

“I seem to recall.”

“And when I tell you that the worst thing you could do for yourself right now is ignore my advice, you’re going to pay attention, right?”

“Absolutely, Chief,” I said. I tossed the baseball back. He caught it like a fielder, not even looking at it.

“Good,” he said. “What’ve you got active right now?”

“Nothing much. The missing person thing on the Galvan kid, I wanted to go back to the school and re-interview this afternoon.”

“No need,” Jimmy shrugged and dismissed it. “Let it go. Aurelia’s been itchy to get out of this town for years now, no surprise she finally managed to make it.”

“Her mother’s chewing nails, Jimmy.”

“She’ll settle down. Look, we get thirty runaways out of this town a year. This one reads just like that last one, and the one before that.” He disposed of the matter by tossing the ball in the air and catching it. “Keep an eye on Meg. Report back to me about what she’s doing here, and who she’s doing it with. This is important, Dan. It might be damn important. Now, here’s the advice. You listening? Don’t get close to her. I know it’s tempting, but just don’t do it.”

“You act like she’s carrying the plague.”

“Let’s just say you don’t want what she’s got,” he said. “But I need to know what she’s doing, and I can’t trust Peyser or any of the others not to go off on her. So it’s up to you, if you’ll do it.”

“You going to tell me the big secret?” I asked.

He didn’t answer me for a few long seconds, then said, “Every town’s got a dirty past, Dan. She’s ours. And we don’t want her back.”

Jimmy Sparkman wasn’t the kind of man who stayed in the office with a star on his door like a prima donna waiting for curtain; he was a working sheriff, out in the streets, always ready to pitch in and do his share of the work. It struck me as strange that he wasn’t risking contact with Leary, until I remembered one very important fact.

Sheriff was an elected office.

When all was said and done, no matter the possible consequences, though, I knew I was going to do what he asked. The risk was damn near as irresistible as she was.

“I’m your man,” I said.


Kate said...

Wow, thanks for the great post. I wouldn't have known about Exile, Texas otherwise.

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Lisette/T.V and Book Addict said...

Sweet! And I live in Texas so I'm always interested in Texasy things :)

You won something:

I Heart Monster said...

Yay! Glad I could help :o)

Recent blog post: Minimal Investment: Exile, Texas by Rachel Caine (Chapter One)

I Heart Monster said...

I've only been to Tejas twice... once I visited Lubbock and Texas Tech and once I drove through Amarillo on my way to Kansas. It was fun though :o)

Recent blog post: Minimal Investment: Exile, Texas by Rachel Caine (Chapter One)