Relic: The Morelville Mysteries - Book 1 - Anne Hagan - darmowy ebook
Opis

Cases collide for two star-crossed ladies of law enforcementCustoms Special Agent Dana Rossi was forced to start her life anew after a bad breakup with her former girlfriend and the loss of a job that she loved. These days, she spends life on the road, moving from one case to another until one day when runs run right into the path of Sheriff Mel Crane. The feisty, sexy butch cop is as determined to uncover a counterfeiting ring in her county as Agent Rossi becomes to stop a stalker obsessed with Mel and hot for her company. Dana is under the added pressure of conducting an undercover investigation of her own with a tight deadline: finding and then stopping a ring of smugglers bringing high-end designer knock-offs into the states.Could their cases be related? When repeated vicious attacks on Mel and on her home accelerate the danger for her and also their attraction to each other, they become desperate to find the truth and solve the two mysteries. Can they find a way to work together to resolve both cases while coming to terms with their growing feelings for one another? Can Dana move beyond her jilted lover past and find true happiness with a small town Sheriff?

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Relic

The Morelville Mysteries – Book 1

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Anne Hagan

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To my wife, my partner in love and mayhem

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PUBLISHED BY:

Anne Hagan @ Jug Run Press for Smashwords

Copyright © 2014

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http://www.AnneHaganAuthor.com

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All rights reserved:  Thank you for downloading this free eBook. Although this is a free book, it remains the copyrighted property of the author and may not be reproduced, copied and distributed for commercial or non-commercial purposes. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to download their own copy at Smashwords.com, where they can also discover other works by this author. Thank you for your support.

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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or deceased, is entirely coincidental.

Table of Contents

Copyright Page

Chapter 1 – Dana

Chapter 2 – Dana in Deep Doo Doo

Chapter 3 – They Meet Again

Chapter 4 - Mel

Chapter 5 – Mel and Dana Meet a 3rd Time

Chapter 6 – Dana

Chapter 7 – Mel

Chapter 8 - Dana

Chapter 9 – Motocross & Madness

Chapter 10 – Dana’s Dilemma

Chapter 11 – Mel & Mayhem

Chapter 12 – Cases Collide

Chapter 13 – Stalkers and Smugglers, Oh My!

Chapter 14 – A Meeting of the Minds

Chapter 15 – Relic

Chapter 16 – Mel: Death Defying

Chapter 17 – Waterlogged

Chapter 18 –  Dana: Attorneys and Gangbangers

Chapter 19 – A Plan Forms

Chapter 20 – Finding Relic

Chapter 21 – Ops

Chapter 22 – Dana’s Game

Chapter 23 – Teamwork

Chapter 24 – Two to Tango

Chapter 25 – Down to Business

Chapter 26 – Thwarted

Chapter 27 – Regroup

Chapter 28 – Reset

Chapter 29 – Crawl, Walk, Run

Chapter 30 – Rodeo

Chapter 31 – Denouement

About the Author

Check Anne Out on her blog, on Facebook or on Twitter

Join Anne’s email List

Chapter 1 – Dana

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I had a little more than three weeks to gather the Intel I needed to stop a major shipment of counterfeit goods from entering the country and being distributed unfettered. Everything my crew and I had done so far to solve the case had turned up a big, fat zero.

I sat with my back against the far wall at ‘The Shanty', a hole in the wall pizza joint in the sleepy village of Morelville, Ohio near the Blue Rock State Forest. A TV blared up high in the opposite corner – some ‘true crime’ show. A couple of tables away, an Amish man stared intently at the screen while he sat and ate a sub.

“So, do you have any idea who the new boss is?” I asked the lean and dusty, for hire farmhand across the table from me.

Brice Buhler signaled the waitress for a refill. His dirty John Deere cap shaded his eyes. He looked bedraggled and tired. Wordlessly, he shook his head.

I was wearing worn Levi’s and a heavy work shirt too. I had my light brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. I was trying for a look that would let me blend in a bit with the locals. Strangers stood out in little towns like this one in Ohio’s Appalachian foothills. Strangers in dark business suits and button down shirts usually looked too ‘Government Issue’ and, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, were likely to be shot, no questions asked.

The cutesy blond waitress came over to refill Buhler’s cola. She eyeballed me up and down and smiled but I didn’t flirt back. Out here, that might get me shot too.

When she left, I picked up where I left off. “It’s really rough, I know. The economy stinks and now even hands are getting laid off. Just what the hell are you supposed to do? Where do you go now?”

“Nobody knows anything and everybody’s lookin’.” Brice drained the glass again and set it down. “I can barely put food on the table for me and my girl, I’m telling you. It’s too cool and wet to plant yet and it’s too early for calving too.”

I dug my wallet out and slid him a couple of twenties. “I feel your pain. I know what you’re going through.”

Brice quietly tucked the cash away. He looked around nervously but the Amish man was still staring at the screen, paying us no mind. Whispering, he said, “I’m not a snitch, ya know?”

I nodded toward him. “You have to eat. I’m not going to ask you for anything that would get you in any kind of bind. I just need something to prove to my boss that I’m on this.” I leaned back and tried to appear casual.

Brice looked around nervously again. Leaning toward my retreat and speaking almost without moving his lips, he admitted, “I’ll brew a little batch of ‘shine from time to time, when the weather breaks.”

“On your own, or do you pay someone protection?”

“Nope. It’s just me these days. I bootleg it myself too.”

“Your secret’s safe with me.”

I didn’t completely believe him about doing it all on his own but the information wasn’t really helpful to me anyway and pushing him for more would get me exactly nowhere.

Maintaining Brice as a Customs informant had been a long slog that I hadn’t relished. At least ATF wasn't onto him yet for the ‘shine. I'd had about enough of those guys stepping on my toes.

I nodded my thanks to him, got up from the table and paid the tab at the counter.

I stepped outside into a sunny late March day in Ohio. I regretted wearing the heavy work shirt but the weather was just so unpredictable this time of year anywhere in the Midwest. I headed up the main road, a state route actually, but I got sidetracked when I spotted an ATM sign in the window of the local everything and more store. I stepped in and drew out the $100.00 maximum the machine would let me have.

Drinks at the Shanty and my little advance to Brice had cleaned me out of ready cash. The service wasn't paying to grease informants these days. The money had come out of my own pocket.

Wanting to get the lay of the land, I walked further along, nodding at a couple of locals as I went. Pickup trucks, the occasional car and a few Amish buggies passed by along the road. The buggies tended to stop near the store or the post office but most of the other traffic went right on through the tiny village.

I ambled into the only gas station in town and grabbed a sweet tea out of the cooler. That ought to help me blend in just a little, I thought to myself.

As I turned toward the counter to pay for my drink, I all but smacked right into the most stunning butch woman I had ever laid eyes on. She took my breath away. My brain went into overdrive. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. Then, my ex flashed into my mind. I shuddered and tried to shake both thoughts away. This trip was all business and neither line of thinking was welcome.

The object of my attention reached out a hand to steady me. Taking hold of my elbow, she grinned and said, “Hey there. Easy does it.” She had a nice smile but, though she wasn't young, I noticed no smile lines. Smiling obviously wasn't an asset she used often.

I shook my head again, mumbled my thanks and strode to the counter. I handed the cashier a twenty and waited for my change. She picked up one of those counterfeit detection pens and attempted to mark the bill. Her line turned black. She pushed the bill back toward me.

“I'm sorry. I can't take this. It's no good. What else 'ya got?”

“I got that bill out of the ATM in the store not three minutes ago. If it's fake, then they're passing them.” The Customs Agent in me was slipping out, unbidden, as my anger level ratcheted up.

The cashier leaned right and eyed someone behind me.

The butch beauty stepped to the counter and asked, “Is everything okay Kris?”

Her voice was strong and low and smooth like butter. I hadn't noticed before. I didn't turn. I just bristled and dug in my pocket for another twenty. I handed it over. The cashier marked it too and then made change.

As I turned from the counter, I felt a hand on my elbow again. I looked up into those deep brown eyes asking the obvious question with my own. Not realizing I spoke out loud, I said, “What the hell?”

“We need to talk about where you really got that bill.”

Now quite angry, I asked, “And just who are you?”

Smiling again, the woman that was fast moving from dream to nightmare in my mind took out a badge.

“I'm Mel Crane, the county Sheriff.”

Crap! Just what I don't need! I looked her up and down more carefully this time. Tall for a woman at over six feet and broad shouldered, she was quite a specimen. Her jet black hair was cut short but with plenty on top for a good spike or to run your fingers through, if you were so inclined. I wasn’t, just now. That’s what I told myself, anyway. She was in khaki pants and a plaid shirt – the butch uniform anywhere else in the world but in this middle of nowhere, backwater. She absolutely exuded sex appeal.

“I'm in a hurry. I really need to get moving.”

“I'll make it quick.” She smiled yet again. My legs became jelly.

She picked up the rejected twenty gingerly and slid it into her shirt pocket then she nodded to Kris and moved to the door. I really had no choice but to follow. There was only one way out for customers.

So this is the replacement for the sheriff, eh? The previous County Sheriff, Caden Carter, had been killed in a botched drug raid just prior to the last election. Carter was widely speculated as, at a minimum, being on the take. He was thought to be trying to up his polling numbers with a grandstanding move. What voters in the county didn't know was that he was involved in so much more than taking a little graft. He had been some sort of local key player in the counterfeit goods trafficking ring I was investigating.

My boss had combed through the Muskingum County Sheriff's Department looking for evidence of corruption or complicity in the conspiracy by other officers on the department in the ring. He'd turned up nothing so far. As his Chief Deputy, the new Sheriff, Melissa “Mel” Crane, had been a squeaky clean and very able replacement for Carter until a new Sheriff could be elected. Word on the street was that she didn't want the job full time.

I didn't like the way this woman was making me feel but I knew I could use a friend on the department. “Fine. I can give you about five minutes,” I said.

I noticed as we walked outside that she was carrying. Good girl, prepared on duty and off.

She stepped over to a somewhat muddy Ford pick-up truck. “If you don't mind, just a short drive? I don't want to have this conversation in this parking lot.”

I blew out a breath and climbed into the passenger seat. She reversed out of the lot and headed out of the village. A silent eternity seemed to pass but, in reality, we stopped on a field access road just out of town.

She looked me up and down. I found myself hoping that she liked what she saw and, seconds later, cursing myself for thinking that. Business. It's just business! I told myself.

She extended her hand. “Sorry. I didn't catch your name?”

I clasped her hand only briefly. I still felt as though I'd been burned. “Dana Rossi.”

She continued to inspect me. I took the same time to look at her more closely too because I just couldn't help myself. Her eyes were so dark, they nearly matched the color of her hair. Though she affected a masculine form of dress and demeanor, her soft face and heavy chest gave her womanhood away. Yes, she was full of allure and contradictions all rolled into one.

“You got any I.D.?”

Sighing, I pulled out my Customs Agent badge.

“You could have shown me that a little sooner.”

I smirked. “I'm undercover.”

“Are you carrying?”

“Aren't you?”

“Touché.” 

“Look, Sheriff, I really only have a few minutes.” I desperately needed to get away from this woman before I said or did something I would regret.

“Mel, please. Call me Mel.”

“Okay, look Mel, I got the money out of the ATM machine at the store back there in town. I didn't take a receipt because I didn't think I'd need one but, dammit, I'm sure the guy at the counter saw me get the money. He wasn't even ten feet away. Anyway, aren’t those machines supposed to reject bad bills? Isn’t that one of their purposes? Arrgh!” I groaned my frustration. “I can't tell you any more than that because that's all I've got.”

I moved to get out of the truck. I'd walk the half mile back to town to get away from her and be on my way.

She put her hand on my arm again, but more gently this time. “Please? I just have a couple of questions. I really need some insight from someone else in law enforcement.”

“Thirty seconds ago, you didn't even know I was an agent.”

She ignored my barbed tone. “What do you do with Customs?”

“I work in special investigations.

“Investigating what?”

“Stuff.”

“I see. Are you working on any “stuff” now that I should know about?”

“It's doubtful,” I lied.

She stared out the windshield a moment, lost in thought and then she flashed those pearly whites again. “Let me get you back to your car. I'm sure you’re eager to get on your way.”

I was surprised by her rapid willingness to drop the subject but I schooled my face and tried not to let my shock show. “I'll just walk back.”

“It's no problem. It'll just take a sec.”

We drove quickly back into the village. I pointed toward the pizza shop. “My car is over there.”

“Say, you wouldn't mind if I took a look would you?”

“At what? My car? What for?”

“With this counterfeiting operation I'm working on, I just can't be too careful.” Her gaze never wavered from my eyes.

Exasperated, I gave up. “Whatever! Be my guest, but make it quick.” I tossed her the keys and then walked over to a picnic table outside the shop. I sat down heavily. I just couldn't wait to get out of this little hole in the wall town and put some distance between myself and Mel Crane.

While she went about her search, I sipped my bottle of tea and thought about my mission. My team and I were working on a smuggling operation that was bringing knock-off designer goods into the U.S. by way of the Canadian border or across the Great Lakes. We'd snapped up a couple of low level guys and we'd been watching old Sheriff Carter hoping he'd lead us to the king pin when he'd been killed in the drug raid fiasco. We needed to find the new local boss or the big boss and we needed to find one of them soon.

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“You're under arrest.”

I looked up from my reverie. “I beg your pardon?”

“You heard me. Stand up.”

“Why am I being arrested?”

“You have some merchandise in your trunk that, though it looks good, is definitely fake. 

“You're making a big mistake!”

“We can talk about it at the station. Hands behind your back.”

Chapter 2 – Dana in Deep Doo Doo

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Stripped of my back up weapon – I don’t carry my service issue when I’m undercover – my badge and my I.D., I felt naked. I didn’t like the feeling and I was fuming. Sheriff “Goody Two Shoes”, since she was off duty, called for a squad to pick me up and then she read me my rights while we waited. Instead of kissing her, I now wanted to kick her.

“I need to make a call.”

“Later. You’re going to the station first. Then we’ll see about your call.”

I rode the 25 minutes to the Sheriff’s Office in Zanesville, the county seat in sullen silence. The officer driving wasn’t the subject of my ire but I wasn’t about to give him anything to tell his boss either. When we got to the station, I was subjected to the indignity of being fingerprinted right away and then being locked in an interview room to wait for my interrogator.

After cooling my heels but not my temper for half an hour, Sheriff ‘Walks On Water’ herself appeared. She was now in full uniform and she was all business.

She sat down carefully opposite of me and then sized me up. I looked her square in the eye. I wasn’t about to give an inch.

“So why are you hanging out in Morelville Ms. Rossi?”

“I told you. I work special investigations for Customs.”

“And the designer knock off stuff in your trunk is...”

“Part of a case.”

I watched her closely too. The smile was long gone. She now looked stressed beyond anything that I might be doing in her jurisdiction.  Still, I wasn’t inclined to help her and she’d just have to deal with that.

“How long have you been coming around?”

“Today was my first and last day in the village.”

She wasn’t amused. “Not staying around for the Mushroom Festival then?” She got up and leaned against the wall near me.

I didn’t favor her with a response to her sarcasm. I slumped back in my chair, tilted my chin in what I hoped was a way that signified my boredom with her questions and said again, “You need to let me make a phone call.”

I never saw her move. She went from ‘good cop’ to ‘bad cop’ in the blink of an eye as she uncoiled and hauled me by the shirt collar out of my chair. She quickly pinned me face first to the wall she'd been leaning against only a split second before. She had me by nearly eight inches of height and a solid 50 pounds at least, as she leaned into me. I was no match for her and she knew it.

I yelped my surprise at the sudden roughness but, then, my body betrayed me. My pulse quickened, my nipples hardened and my crotch grew moist. I felt the heat of my desire burning my neck and cheeks. She took my embarrassment at my physical reaction to her as rage and she leaned in harder.

“Whoa! Ease up. We're on the same team here!” I tried to sound like her equal and not the sex starved lunatic I was currently channeling.

She spun me around to face her. We were so close; I could feel her warm breath on my face as she looked down at me. I was breathing hard but she was the picture of calm resolve.

“Are you going to cooperate now?”

I didn't get a chance to answer her. As she stepped back, eyes trained firmly on me, someone rapped on the door. She backed up to it and, still watching me, inquired about the interruption.

I couldn't hear what was said. Swiftly, she stepped out and closed the door firmly behind her.

I paced the room for a couple of minutes. I either needed to make a call or I needed a cover story and I needed it now. I couldn’t go into the details of my investigation with her. My mind began to race but, mid-stride in my pacing, she returned.

Without preamble she said, “You're free to go. I don't know what connections you supposedly have but the Deputy Director of Customs and Border Protection says that I have no jurisdiction to hold you.”

Great! Just great! Word of my arrest traveled so fast the DD got involved! Now the entire agency will know I got picked up in a backwater, hick town. I'll be a laughingstock. Just what I needed!

I quickly masked my face and strode by Ms. Mel Crane as though I owned her station. I wasn't letting her know she'd even temporarily gotten the best of me. “I'll need my badge, I.D. and weapon back immediately,” I tossed over my shoulder. “I also need a ride back to my car and not in a squad. You've done enough damage to my cover for one day.”

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I hit the gas and ignored my own dust as I left tiny Morelville in my rear view mirror. I headed north again but, this time, I avoided Zanesville. I didn't intend to visit there again anytime soon either.

I was assigned to the Chicago field office but I was working this case with a team out of the Cleveland Port of Entry. That's a nice way of saying I had a desk there.

For now, I was temporarily sharing an apartment in a Cleveland suburb with another agent who was assigned full time to the Ashtabula Port of Entry. The apartment wasn't home for me and it never would be. I didn't have a real home anymore. My job took me wherever a case blew me, in our region or outside of it. I loved the work but I hated life on the road.

Not relishing a three-hour drive back to the city from nowhere Morelville, I opted for a cheap, no tell motel a half hour away from Zanesville, just off the highway. I paid cash. No one checked my twenties there.

In my room, I dropped my go bag on the floor, took off my boots, splashed my face in the tiny sink and sank down on the bed. It was time to call it a night.

I slept only fitfully. A certain county sheriff kept invading my dreams. I gave up any thought of real sleep well before dawn and I hit the road. I showered and changed at the apartment and was in the office before 8:00 AM. I was too late though for the pranksters on my team, all male, who had pulled out all the stops to decorate my desk with fuzzy handcuffs and crudely worded fingerprint cards. Obviously, they’d had nothing better to do with their time the evening before.

I ignored their juvenile humor and stuck my head into the local boss’s office. My team leader, Geno “Gene” Corelli was on the phone, deep in conversation. He was responsible for the day to day function of the port office but, he’d come up through the investigative ranks himself and he managed investigative cases and teams throughout Ohio as well.

I went back to my desk and booted my computer. Since I couldn't pick Gene’s brain, I needed to look up the current players in Muskingum County myself. Though starting with a more in depth search of my would-be informant Brice Buhler crossed my mind, I quickly shifted to a more interesting to me search of the background of one Sheriff Melissa “Mel” Crane.

A document that I opened provided me with an overview of the background of Crane. She was a twin and shared living arrangements with her sister Karissa Crane in, of all places, Morelville. Could Karissa really be “Kris” from the gas station? I tried to picture the cashier in my mind as she informed me that my bill was supposedly fake. I had been so thrown by Mel that my usual memory skills were all out of whack. I just couldn't quite picture Kris.

I pulled up a search for Karissa Crane and had my answer. Mel's twin sister was the cashier at the station. She must dye her hair...

The twins, at 35, were slightly older than me. Mel had done well to make Deputy Chief with the Sheriff’s Department so young and even better to accept the temporary appointment to Chief. Maybe there was more there than met the eye. I closed out the file and sat back in my chair, trying to connect the few dots I had. I was drawing a blank.

I turned to my teammate, Tim Singer, who’d come in while I was scanning online databases. “How's the follow up on Carter coming?”

“Nothing but dead ends. It seems like he took all his secrets to the grave with him.”

Prior to Sheriff Carter’s death, we'd gotten a code name for the smuggling op ring leader, ‘Relic’, and a date for a major shipment of knock off couture, handbags and heaven only knew what else, “moving” on or about May 20th. What we didn't know was who Relic was, where the shipment was coming in and where, specifically it was headed to be broken down for distribution. We just didn't have enough information to capture the shipment or to bust the ring wide open.

“We need to find Relic. To get to him,” Tim continued, “we're just going to have to keep catching these low-level guys as they move merchandise.”

“Tim, we've caught several ‘low-level’ guys. None of them have a clue who Relic is.”

“Patience Dana. Patience.”

“Patience be damned. Time isn't on our side my friend.”

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On a “good traffic day”, the likes of which were rare in Cleveland, our office was only 30 minutes from the actual Cleveland ‘sea’ port on Lake Erie. Though we felt like the shipment was probably coming overland – air was too risky since 9/11 - we had to cross all the “T's” and dot all the “I's”. Tim and I headed north to the port to do a little recon work.

The Port of Cleveland is tiny. Between the two of us, it took us less than 15 minutes to talk to most of the grizzled old hands there and realize there was nothing they could tell us. Hoping for something, anything, we set out west along the lake shore to the port at the Avon Lake Basin. A round of 20 questions there and another further up the road at the Loraine Basin docks also yielded zip.

We continued West on State Route 5 – a long but scenic trip – to the Huron Basin. We spent much of the afternoon talking to anyone there who would talk to us but we got nowhere. We'd spent a full day striking out. We were 0 for 4.

A long drive back to the office left me in a foul mood. We were no further along than yesterday and a day closer to “the day”. Our options were even more limited than they had been the day before. Beaten, I headed to the apartment with a pounding headache.

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I didn't even remember falling asleep when I woke to the sound of my cell ringing somewhere in the furthest reaches of my brain. I came out of my fog just enough to find it, check the caller's ID and answer Gene's summons before my voice mail kicked on and pissed him off. Patience wasn't one of his virtues either.

“You had a visitor after you left the office.”

“Who?”

“Sheriff Melissa Crane.”

“Why? What did she want?”

“She wants to be in on our investigation. It seems that she thinks we may be investigating the same thing.”

“She doesn't have a clue what we're working on. What did she say when you sent her packing back to Zanesville?”

“I didn't send her packing.”

“Wait, what?”

“Before Carter was killed, we know there was a steady flow of goods into or through that county. Somebody there is in charge of that or somebody there knows something. Crane grew up there. She knows everybody and she knows everybody’s business. We don't have a lot of time. She could be the asset we need.”

“All she is, is a pain in the asset!”

“It isn't my problem Dana.”

“What are you saying Gene?”

“I'm saying, you stirred up that hornet's nest and you've been to the area. You'll be her liaison from our team.”

“This isn't a good idea.”

“Then you try to talk her out of it. Something tells me you'll be spinning your wheels.”

Chapter 3 – They Meet Again

Dana

The Border Patrol arm of the agency had caught an illegal selling knock off high end handbags in Texas. He sang a crazy tune and fingered a gang banger in Chicago as his goods connection. I drew the lucky assignment to fly back to the Windy City, track down one Mr. ‘Freestyle’, and try to figure out what he knew.

I landed at Midway late the next morning. I headed straight to the Chicago Field Office for a brief with the task force boss on what was known about Freestyle. I learned that the word on the street was that he had recently gone underground after a dust up with another member of his own gang. Armed with my sidearm and the names, addresses and phone numbers of his known family members and associates, I hit the pavement. As it turned out, my quarry was hiding in plain sight.

Freestyle's Grandmother lived in the Englewood neighborhood. Thinking I was the mail carrier, she opened the door to me when I stepped onto her stoop. My luck turned. The former gang banger was sitting in her living room watching afternoon soaps with her when I got there.

I drew on him in case he had a gun nearby and I flashed my badge. Grandma sank, shaking, into a chair.

I put the badge away and, still training my pistol at his head, I identified myself as a Customs and Border Protection agent. I quickly glanced sideways at the old woman. She was in a daze but motionless.

“I want to talk to you about smuggling,” I said.

He sneered at me and tossed his head. “Nice lookin' white lady like you. You could get hurt real bad comin' round here pointing a piece where you got no business.”

“I'm just looking for some information. We can do this the easy way or we can do it the hard way; your choice.” I wasn't about to show this guy any fear.

“Buzz off. I don't talk to no cops, man.”

“Antoine!” It was the old woman. “Enough. I'll not have violence in this house! We've been through enough!”

Properly cowed, the sneering look disappeared. He released a loud breath and leaned back on the sofa. After what seemed like an eternity, he asked, “What do you want to know?”

“I need to find Relic.”

Freestyle looked away. “I don't know him.”

“All I need is to find him. Anything that would put me on his trail...”

He didn't look back at me. After several more long seconds, he shook his head. Then, very faintly, I heard, “What's in it for me?”

“I'll talk to my command but, for them to do anything; you have to give me something first.”

“Maybe so, but not here. How do I get you, man?”

I laid my card on the table in front of him. Looking back at him, I said, “Just call that number, 24/7. Don't make me wait. I found you today. I can find you tomorrow too.”

I backed out of the house and holstered my gun but didn't fasten it. I wanted fast access.

I returned to Cleveland and, the next day, I drove to Zanesville. I walked into the Sheriff's Office and announced my presence. I explained that I was a federal agent, that I was armed and that I would not be giving up my weapon.

Sheriff Crane stepped into the receiving area and said to the Desk Sergeant, “Let her pass.” She looked the part of the lady in charge from head to toe. She eyeballed me with an unreadable expression as I moved toward her.

“Let's talk in my office.”

I followed her down a short hallway. She opened a door on the left side and, moving around behind a Government Issue desk, she pointed to the only other chair in the room. The room was sparsely decorated and not at all what I expected of a County Sheriff's own office.

She moved a stack of mail from the middle of her desk blotter to the corner then leaned forward, hands folded over her desk blotter. She grinned and eyed me casually. It was disconcerting after her attempt at roughing me up in our previous meeting. “So, what can I help you with today?”

“You tell me. You’re the one who stormed the Cleveland Port Office and demanded to be a part of our investigation.”

“Look; why don’t you just tell me what you’re really working on?”

“I’m not going to tell you because that information is on a need to know basis and you don’t need to know.”

“Then why did you come back down here? This is my turf. I need to know what’s going on here, in my town, in my county. I’m starting to think you came back just because you couldn’t stay away from me.”

“You don’t have the clearance, Sheriff.” I spat her temporary title out like it was something distasteful in my mouth. She had hit a nerve. 

“Why don’t you just give me the general overview... somewhere for me to start? I have reason to believe that what I’m working on and what you’re working on are linked together.”

“I assure you, they’re not.”

“Let’s be clear. If you stir up any trouble here, I’ll be on you like white on rice.”

“Promise?” I instantly blushed. Uggh! Where the hell did that come from?

She laughed. It was a beautiful, deep sound this time that took my breath away. I caught myself staring at her and quickly turned away. Snap out of it! I shook my head to clear my thoughts.

“Geno Corelli told me that you’ll be my liaison. Isn’t he the boss?”

“In a manner of speaking, yes...” I trailed off.

“He’s in charge of you, isn’t he?

I was evasive. “Locally.”

“So, liaise.” She smiled again. She knew it got under my skin when she did that.

I attempted to draw in a breath and then, inexplicably, I gave in. “We’re working on a knock off goods smuggling operation.”

“Money laundering or counterfeiting of bills involved?”

“Not that we’re aware of so far but, I suppose it’s possible.”

“How is Morelville involved?”

“It isn’t... that we know of.” I was guessing there. The team had so little to go on but I didn’t want her to know that. I certainly didn’t want her to know Sheriff Carter had been a key player in the whole scheme. I planned to hold that card close for a while longer.

“Then why were you there the other day?”

“I was meeting with someone who we thought might have some information. I left with no more than I started with.”

“So, you have nothing.” It was a statement not a question.

I bristled. “We have a date when we know a large, high dollar shipment is moving but we don’t know the origin or the final destination.”

“How can I help you?”

I shrugged and said, “At this point, I don’t know. If we get some more intel that leads us back to this area, I’ll let you know.” I really didn't think she could help and I didn't want her involved in the case anyway. There were still too many unanswered questions. She or other officers in her department could be involved. We just didn’t know yet. Going with that, I feared I may have already told her too much but Gene seemed to believe that she was one of the good guys.

She donned a skeptical expression but I wasn't giving her any more. Much to my relief, she stood up, signaling the end of our meeting.

“Thank you.”

As I stood too, she extended her hand to me. I leaned in to take it but in my clumsiness at the thought of touching her, I bumped the desk and sent her stack of mail skittering to the floor.

“I'm so sorry!” I skirted the desk and stooped to pick up the mess I'd created as she did the same. We jostled each other as we reached for the same large envelope. It was full of photographs of her that spilled out of it onto the floor.

There were dozens of shots taken of her with her sister and a couple of kids. In some, she was in the khakis and the plaid shirt she'd been wearing two days before. In others, obviously shot with a high-powered lens, she was in other clothes, both inside and outside of her home, alone and with the others, preparing food, eating, changing...

“What the hell are these?” I yelled.

She was snatching up the photos and stuffing them back into the envelope. “Nothing. Don't worry about it.”

Maybe she didn't want me to worry but she sure was!

I sat back down. “When were those taken?”

She blew out a breath. “Over the past two days. That's what I was wearing yesterday”, she said as she held out one of the photos.

“After you arrested me and after you went to Cleveland and met with Corelli?”

“That has nothing to do with it!”

“The hell it doesn't! Smuggling designer knock-offs is big business and some of these people we're dealing with consider killing people that get in their way as all in a day's work.”

“Gee. I'm such a moron! I must have missed the bad guy class at the academy!” She smiled. I knew now that she smiled at me to mock me. Our short truce was over!

Without thinking about what I might be revealing, I blurted out, “Look, there are people around here that probably know we're investigating a smuggling operation. Someone saw you visit the Port Office. They didn't 'appreciate' it. From here on, you need to stay out of what we're working on.”

“I'm a big girl. I can handle the risk.”

“I'm not asking you to stay out of this. I'm telling you to.”

“What are you going to do, tell my mommy? Seriously Dana?” She was pissed. “Whatever danger is threatening the peace and quiet in this county, you can be sure I’ll be out there fighting it.” Mel scowled this time, showing her teeth.

I wondered what she’d do if I tried to kiss her. My heart raced. As volatile and bad-tempered as she was, she might just draw her service weapon and shoot me. Still, kissing those lips would be worth the risk. I resigned not to do it. That wasn’t why I was in town. I had business to take care of and chasing after beautiful butch women was no longer a part of my life anyway. I had too much baggage to carry. Nobody deserved to have to deal with all my crap just to be in a relationship with me.

“Stick to catching runaway livestock.” I moved toward the door. “Just forget about me and my crew.” I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be forgetting about Mel anytime soon.

––––––––

I walked out of the station and away from Mel Crane. At least I had a potential lead in Chicago. Freestyle would have to figure out how much he could tell me and I needed to figure out how to protect him from his former gang. I needed to talk to Gene about that. I also needed to make sure no one hurt Mel.

Chapter 4 - Mel

C