- Publisher: Simon & Schuster
- Release Date: 2010, 2011
- ISBN-13: 978-1416563105
- Available Formats: Audio, e-Book, Print
Dodge Hanley, first introduced in SMASH CUT as Derek Mitchell’s irascible but indispensable staff investigator, returns as the flawed protagonist of TOUGH CUSTOMER. A scoundrel women love to hate, Dodge has used shady means of delivering the goods in the past…but when it comes to aiding the daughter of his former lover, real estate mogul Caroline King, his dogged perseverance knows no bounds. In his determination to uncover the truth for Caroline and her daughter, Berry, Dodge teams with a small town sheriff to track down a depraved man who’s obsessed with having Berry — or killing her.
He was out of the truck while dust around the tires was still rising.
The ambulance’s emergency lights sent pulsing shafts of color into the surrounding forest. The doors of the ambulance had been left open by the EMTs whom, he assumed, were already inside.
His boots crunched in the gravel as he covered the distance to the porch in three long strides. He entered the house through the open front door, stepping into a wide foyer. His eyes swept the main room on his left. Nobody in it. Nothing apparently disturbed. Two empty wine glasses were on the coffee table in front of a slip-covered sofa. Traces of lipstick were on one of the glasses, but not on the other.
The sofa faced a stone fireplace where a leafy fern had been placed in the grate for the summer. Rocking chair with woven cane seat. Patchwork quilt folded over the arm of an upholstered easy chair. Magazines and books in shelves and stacked on various tables.
It was as homey, cozy, and placid a setting as could possibly be.
He registered it all within seconds. Beyond the living room was a dining area rimmed by a bay window, but he gave off exploration when noises from above drew his gaze up to the gallery that ran the width of the house. His long legs took the open stairs two at a time. He rounded the landing, making sure not to touch the newel post, and proceeded up to the second floor.
He walked along the gallery that led him into a short hallway and to an open bedroom door. Again he assimilated the room in a glance. Matching lamps on either side of an unmade queen size bed cast discs of light onto the pale, peachy-colored wall. A ceiling fan with blades made of palm leaves circulated overhead. There were three wide windows. Through the louvers of the shutters he could see the continued play of the colored emergency lights.
The EMTs were kneeling on either side of a prone figure, a man, judging by the bare feet and hairy legs, which was all of him that could be seen from this vantage point. Under the man, blood had soaked into the rug.
One of the EMTs glanced over his shoulder and bobbed his head in greeting. “Hey, Ski. We’ve been expecting you.”
He walked into the room. “What have you got?”
“Messy GSW to the lower left torso.”
“Is he gonna make it?”
“Don’t know yet.”
Until she spoke, Ski hadn’t realized that the second EMT was a woman.
“A good sign, though,” she added. “The lady said he was conscious right up till we got here.”
“Lady?” Ski asked.
The first EMT nodded into an open doorway which they were presently blocking. “She called in the 911.”
“Hers? Uh. . .” Distracted by situating the IV bag, the name escaped him.
The female EMT supplied it. “King.”
“Caroline King?” Ski asked with surprise. “This is her house?”
The woman EMT shrugged. “That’s the name in our data base.”
“So who’s the guy that got shot?”
“Lady said his name is Ben Lofland.”
“Are they the only two in the house?”
“Appear to be. The front door was standing open when we got here. We followed her shouts upstairs. Found him lying here as you see him. She was kneeling beside him, clutching his hand, crying. We haven’t seen anybody else. She’s shaken up pretty bad.”
“Did she shoot him?”
“That’s your job,” the woman EMT replied.
Satisfied that the shooting victim was stabilized enough to transport, the two competently and efficiently placed him on the stretcher they’d carried up with them, affording Ski a better look at him. He appeared to be in his mid-thirties. He had even features and the trim build of a runner or tennis player. No facial hair, tattoos, or distinguishing scars.
He was wearing nothing except a pair of gray knit underwear. It had been cut away on the left side where there was now a large bandage. The woman EMT threw a blanket over him. The guy was out cold, but he groaned as they strapped him down.
Hearing the clumping of footsteps, Ski turned just as another deputy barged into the room, then drew up short. “I got here soon as I could,” he huffed. His wide-eyed gaze moved past Ski to the dark, wet bloodstain on the rug, then to the victim on the stretcher.
He was younger than Ski by more than a decade, nearly a foot shorter, soft around the middle. His apple-cheeked face was flushed and he was out of breath, either from excitement or from running up the stairs. He was a rookie. This was his first shooting. To him, it must represent the Big Time.
Ski said, “Give them a hand, will you, Andy? Getting that stretcher around the landing might be tricky. Don’t touch anything in the process unless you put on gloves.”
“Hal’s on his way to help secure the house. He’ll get here as soon as he can.”
“He’s got some miles to cover.”
“So until he gets here,” Ski said sternly, “it’s up to you not to let anybody else inside, and that includes our own men. I’m counting on you. Got it?”
“Got it.” The younger deputy hiked up his slipping gun belt and accompanied the EMTs out.
Ski crossed the room and went to the open door that had been blocked by the fallen victim.
He looked into a bathroom, where a woman was sitting on the rim of the tub, rocking back and forth, her elbows on her knees, her head in her hands. He had a bird’s eye view of the center part in her hair. Ski thought it might be auburn, but it was hard to tell because it was wet. It formed a heavy curtain on both sides of her face.
A summer-weight cotton robe had been carelessly tied at her waist. The wide sleeves had fallen back to reveal slender arms sprinkled with pale freckles. The skirt of the robe had separated above her knees, leaving her legs bare. Her toes were curled into the deep pile of the bath mat.
She wasn’t Caroline King.
Inside the bathtub, the porcelain was wet. Three of the pewter rings holding the shower curtain had been detached from the rod, leaving the wet curtain hanging unevenly. A bottle of shampoo in the corner of the tub was uncapped.
She must have been interrupted while taking a shower, which explained the damp patches where her robe was stuck to her skin.
Lying on the bath mat a few inches from her feet, incongruous with the vulnerability of her pink, bare toes, was a .38 revolver, a standard Saturday night special.
Ski removed a pair of latex gloves from the hip pocket of his jeans. He worked his right hand into one of them, then cautiously walked forward and bent down to pick up the revolver by the trigger guard. He thumbed the latch, and the cylinder swung out. There was an unspent bullet in all six chambers. He sniffed the barrel. It hadn’t been fired recently.
As though only then realizing that he was there, the woman lowered her hands from her face and looked up at him, but her eyes remained disconnected and vague. They were red from crying, but they were the only color in her face. Her skin was very pale, her lips practically white.
She swallowed noisily. “Is he all right?”
Whimpering, she looked past Ski to the bloodstain just beyond the threshold. “Oh, God.” She pressed trembling fingers against her lips. “I can’t believe this happened.”
“What did happen?”
“He’s got to be all right. I should be with him. I must go.”
She tried to stand, but Ski placed his hand on her shoulder and pushed her back down. “Not now.”
For the first time since he’d come into the room, she focused on him. “Are you. . . Who are you?”
He unsnapped the leather wallet on his belt and opened it to show her his ID. “Deputy Ski Nyland, Merrick County S.O.”
“I see.” But Ski didn’t believe she actually did. She’d barely glanced at his ID. Her watery gaze was imploring. “Please tell me he’s going to be okay.”
“What’s your name?”
She seemed to have to think about it. Then she hooked her wet hair behind her ears and answered in a husky voice. “Berry Malone.”
Ski noted that her last name wasn’t the same as that of the man who’d been shot. Neither of them was named King.
He said, “The wounded man, Ben Lofland. . .is that right?”
She gave an abrupt nod.
“He’s in good hands. On his way to the ER.”
“He’s not dead?”
“Wasn’t when they left with him.”
“He bled a lot.”
“He did, yeah.”
“He can’t die.”
“Unfortunately, he can.”
She made a choking sound, and whispered, “I must call his wife.”
She stared at Ski for several seconds, then covered her face with her hands and began to cry in loud, wracking sobs.
Ski planted his feet wider on the bathroom floor tiles. “What happened here tonight, Ms. Malone?”
She moaned into her hands and shook her head.
“Is this your pistol? Did you shoot Lofland with it?” He didn’t believe she had. At least not using the pistol now in his possession, but he wanted to see what kind of reaction he’d get by asking.
She dropped her hands from her face and gaped at him. “What?”
“Did you — ”
“No!” She surged to her feet, reeled slightly, then steadied herself by placing a hand on the edge of the pedestal sink. “I didn’t get out the pistol until after I’d called 911.”
“After you’d called 911?”
Her head bobbed an affirmation. She gulped a breath. “I was afraid
. . .afraid he would come back.”
Before she could answer, sounds of a commotion downstairs reached them. A door slammed. Voices were raised. Berry Malone gave a sharp cry and slipped past Ski through the bathroom door.
“Hey!” He was careful to hurdle the bloodstain on the rug as he chased after her. Midway across the bedroom, he made a grab for her arm, but came up with only a handful of cotton fabric. She whirled around and yanked it from his grip. If Ski had ever doubted that she was naked under the flimsy robe, those doubts were dispelled. He got an eyeful.
Then in a flash of bare skin and printed textile, she vanished through the bedroom door.
Ski went after her, crossed the gallery in a run, and bolted down the stairs, hot on her heels.
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?”
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 he knew, 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 liked keeping a low profile, so to speak. He had a driver’s license because it was a necessity. He carried a single credit card, and 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?”
Warily, 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.
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.”
“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 night stand and laid the cigarette it in.
“That’s good,” she said. “I’m glad to hear it.”
Then neither of them said anything for so long that the silence took on sound.
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.”
“What kind of trouble?”
“Can you come?”
“To Houston?” A place to which he swore he would never return. “What for?”
“Will you come?”
Her stubborn refusal to answer a simple question 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, “It was wrong of me to call you. 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 coming running to get you out of some kind of unspecified trouble?” He paused for effect, then said snidely, “Wait. Why is this sounding familiar to me? Is this sounding familiar to you?”
She responded exactly as he expected her to: with pique. “I’m not asking you to help me, Dodge.”
“Well good. Because — ”
“It’s Berry who’s in trouble.”
“Brace yourself for exhilarating twists and turns in this gripping tale of obsession, murder and the fragile nature of relationships…” — Fresh Fiction
“While Merritt County Sheriff’s Deputy Ski Nyland is no slouch, the relentlessly ruthless Dodge plays the most crucial role in the effort to stop the bad guy. Brown fans will want to see more of the irresistible Dodge.” — Publisher’s Weekly (6/28/2010)
“Brown doesn’t disappoint…gifting sweltering readers with an equally steamy tale of obsession, love and terror.” — Joy Tipping, Dallas Morning News (8/2010)
A Note From Sandra
Often I’m asked by fans as well as publishers if I would consider writing a series. The answer is “No.”
The reason is twofold: I’m not interested, and I’m not smart enough. Knowing the limits of my attention span, I can’t imagine writing book after book about the same character or group of characters without become bored, and, consequentially, stale. To make each story fresh for readers, the series writer must be incredibly inventive, creating adventures both real and psychological for their character, while maintaining a common thread from book to book.
Me? I like starting from scratch each time. New story. New character. Now, forget everything I just said. Because in TOUGH CUSTOMER, I carried over a character from SMASH CUT, something I haven’t done since the late 80’s. Check your calendar. That’s more than 25 years ago!
Dodge Hanley appeared in SMASH CUT as the private investigator for a criminal law firm and ended up being too interesting a character for me to leave alone. He’s world-wise, world-weary, a card carrying cynic with nasty habits and language both droll and profane. I simply had to know what had made him that way. Was he born with a jaundiced outlook on life? Had that callosity developed over time, or had it been caused by some pivotal event in his past? In TOUGH CUSTOMER I plunge Dodge into a present day crisis that forces him to confront decisions he made thirty years earlier and which dictated the rocky path his life would take. I weave the past story into that of the present. In action, Dodge is fascinating to watch, but he’s hardly standard issue “hero” material. So, joining him in this story is Ski Nyland, a taciturn Texas sheriff who tries his best to keep Dodge in line, while also coming to admire the older man’s no-nonsense approach to getting the bad guy.
Also key to the story is the love (yes, love) of Dodge’s life, Caroline King, and her fiery daughter Berry, who’s being victimized by a psychopathic coworker turned stalker. Set in deep East Texas, with a turning-point scene taking place in The Big Thicket National Preserve, the story has plenty of action and a surprise twist ending. But at the heart of the story is a flawed man who’s willing to die in order to atone for his past mistakes.