Merton "Buddy" Hinckley wouldn't tell you the truth if you set his hair on fire. As a small-time contractor, he treated his customers like lice, and he had more process servers after him than both Clintons combined. Streeter was so mad at him that he was doing this one for free. His partner, Frank Dazzler, had talked him into serving the garnishment papers. Streeter usually avoided serving process. At twenty-five bucks a pop, you could easily make less than minimum wage. Fortunately, as a bounty hunter for Dazzler's Bail Bonds, he seldom had to do it. But then an Army pal of Frank's from Korea had mentioned a scammer who'd conned his aunt out of nearly four grand.
"It breaks my heart to see her," the friend had said. "Old Clara always dreamed about adding a little sewing room on the back of her house. So this cowboy contractor named Hinckley comes along while I'm outta town and waltzes her into forking over thirty-eight hundred and change. In advance, no less. Was he peddling a line of manure? Does Michael Jackson love little kids? Anyhow, Hinckley comes out to her house for half a day, knocking holes in a wall like he's getting down to business. Then he disappears, and we can't find him for months."
They sued Buddy and won a judgment plus punitive damages. But he didn't pay a penny and they all knew he almost certainly was still out there running the same hustle on other people. Clara's attorney got a garnishment order, meaning that a chunk of whatever the builder was earning should go to her. But the order would be worthless until it was hand-delivered to Hinckley.
Frank played on Streeter's compassion and sense of fairness. They'd been partners for ten years and Streeter was the best skip tracer in Denver. Still, the bounty hunter was reluctant until he dropped in on Clara to pick up the papers. That's when he got mad. It was so endearingly pathetic, the way she walked him to the back of her house and showed him the boarded-up holes. She described in slow detail how she'd envisioned the sewing room that would never be. When she finished, a solitary tear worked its way down an ancient cheek as creased as a used lunch bag. Then, in a voice suddenly hard, she added, "When you serve this shit heel, Mr. Streeter, please kick him one in the grapes for me."
Patiently, he explained that the service was as far as he'd go. Clara nodded and let out a resigned wheeze. "Whatever you think is best."
Now, turning north off 14th Avenue onto Colorado Boulevard, Streeter thought of how he'd all but given up. Hinckley, a paranoid boozer in his late forties, lived in a secured building. His wife and son screened all calls, as well as any visitors who got past the locked lobby. Buddy didn't have a regular work schedule and he kept his truck in the closed, underground garage. It could take weeks of surveillance to catch him coming or going.
On a hunch, Streeter had read the court file. In the financial-disclosure portion, Buddy had listed a 1953 Ford sedan valued at six hundred dollars that he intended to sell. He gave its location as a Conoco station on the East Side. When the bounty hunter went there, the antique Ford was parked in the rear. Still for sale. Streeter asked if he could talk to its owner. The manager said that that wasn't possible, but that he himself was authorized to handle the deal. Buddy was cautious to a fault. Acting indignant, Streeter wrote his phone number on a slip of paper. He said he'd pay nine hundred cash money for the Ford, but only if he could talk directly to the guy holding title.
Three weeks went by and no response. Then, early one morning, a strapped Buddy finally called him. Streeter said his offer was still good, provided Buddy'd meet him at the station for a test ride. Reluctantly, the contractor agreed to be there at ten. At precisely three minutes to the hour, Streeter pulled his brown Buick into the driveway. As he moved toward the office, a man in sagging blue jeans and a filthy green windbreaker walked out. Streeter stopped his car but left the engine running, then grabbed the papers from the seat next to him and stuffed them inside his suede jacket.
"Mr. Streeter," Buddy said as he approached, holding out his hand. A grin was plastered across a face aged by Camel non-filters, sun, and house bourbon. "Howdy."
Streeter got out of his car and stood tall to accentuate his full six-foot-one-inch frame and all two hundred twenty pounds. He dwarfed the contractor, who now stopped a couple of feet away, his smile fading. Streeter glared into Buddy's rheumy eyes. A whiff of alcohol, perspiration, and fear came from the little guy. Looking at the mass of man in front of him and the anger in his eyes, Buddy sensed that the sale was in trouble.
"These are for you," Streeter said as he pulled out the papers and handed them over. Buddy took them, his mouth silently opening. "Compliments of Clara," Streeter continued. "And if I ever hear of you pulling a stunt like that again, I'll be disappointed. You understand? Very disappointed. I'm sure you don't want that."
Keeping his eyes fixed on the smaller man, Streeter got back into his car. When he stopped at the end of the driveway, he glanced in his rearview mirror. Buddy was frozen in the same spot, his mouth still open, staring at the garnishment order in his hand. He stood there like that for a long time after the Buick left.
As Streeter drove back to the renovated church he shared with Frank, his anger cooled. By the time he walked into the first-floor office, he was almost cheerful. That feeling didn't last. On the desktop was a note on a yellow legal pad. It read: "Street, Carol Irwin called. I gather someone's trying to kill her. She'd like you to discourage him from doing that. If you get a chance, give her a holler. F."CHAPTER 2
At first it reminded her of a small, fuzzy hand moving under its own power. It had a certain choppy grace. Carol almost laughed, but instead she let out a nervous snort. This was one huge tarantula. She'd never thought she'd see one up this close. Being a tax lawyer, why would she? Carefully, she looked at the spider while holding the jar up to the light. Its hair seemed so soft. Touchable. Suddenly it jerked, rolled itself into the shape of a cue ball, and turned away from her. Indifferent or maybe just trying to hide. Carol put the jar down and stepped back from her desk. Slowly, she brushed her hands together like they were sticky.
Between the note now in her briefcase — an idiotic poem, actually — and the tarantula, the message seemed obvious. That being she was a dead woman. The spider wouldn't get her. It wasn't meant to. But the man who presumably sent it would. He being Kevin Swallow. And he'd take his own sweet time doing it.
Early that morning, Carol collected the spider and the poem, and called the police. The two uniforms took forever getting to her apartment in central Denver. Typical, she thought as they strutted through her cluttered home, frowning. Judging. Lingering over the full ashtrays, the overflowing clothes hamper, and the unmade bed. Dirty dishes stacked nervously in the sink. All the while subtly scoping an aloof and chain-smoking Carol Irwin. They tried to be cool, but she made them right away. Then she spent an hour answering their questions. The young officer with thinning blond hair and a closely trimmed beard came on as particularly concerned.
"Maybe we could get together for coffee sometime," he told her just before they left. "We could go over your case and discuss the best way to approach it." He tried to hedge his move by sounding official. Clearing his throat, he ran an unsteady hand over his receding hairline. "Tactical-wise, that is."
"Tactical-wise, huh?" Carol studied him. "How old are you, Peaches?"
"Twenty-seven." He now tried to sound loose but could only manage shaky. "And my name's Jeff." As an afterthought he added, "Barrows."
"Twenty-seven. That makes you what? About nineteen in actual guy years. Maturity-wise, that is. Call me when you make captain." Carol disliked all cops, regardless of rank. Still, he looked so disappointed she added in a softer tone, "Look, Jeff Barrows, I'm involved with someone. Don't take it personal."
When they left, she called and gave her message to Frank. Streeter got back to her just before noon and they agreed to meet at three. Carol had been engaged to him almost seven years ago and they were still friends. Or, rather, they became friends after the breakup. Their separation was brutal, accusatory, and tear-drenched. The tears and accusations were hers, but neither of them had behaved well. All that was history now. Not that they were close. More like the exchange-discount-birthday-cards-and-stilted-phone-calls, have-dinner-twice-a-year kind of friends.
Driving to her office, Streeter was skeptical. When she'd asked him if he'd do a job for her, the stutter of crying burst through the receiver like gunfire. Carol's tears. They always got to him. She wept unlike anyone he'd ever known, seemingly on command. "I swear, that woman cries at card tricks," Streeter had once told Frank. "I've never seen so much liquid coming from one little person."
Could he work for her? They'd done all right in the old days, though he was never impressed with her legal skills. Because Colorado has no licensing for PIs, Carol used the ex-football player as an investigator back when she was still practicing criminal law. He'd hunt down witnesses or do interviews where there might be trouble. Just the intensity in his deep-brown eyes and the bulk of his shoulders and forearms kept people from getting out of line. Not that he'd ever hurt anyone unnecessarily. Still, Streeter had plenty of backbone. You couldn't deal with the kind of punks he routinely handled and not make smoke once in a while.
"I'm glad you made it," she said, showing him into her office located in a so-called Denver Square: a large, two-story, turn-of-the-century house. It was about four blocks east of the state capitol. "I might have sounded unhinged on the phone, but cut me a little slack, okay? It's not every day someone threatens to kill me."
Streeter knew that Carol was a woman of intense feelings and random mood swings. Her being "unhinged" under these circumstances was no surprise. All he said was, "Let's hope not." They gave each other a perfunctory hug. Her perfume hit him in a soft, warm wave. It was a new brand for Carol and he couldn't quite place it.
He sat down across the desk from her. Though he hadn't visited the office in years, it was as he remembered. Messy places never seem to change. It reminded him of a dorm room for law students cramming for finals. There was one window, partially blocked by thick accordion file folders on the sill. Files also lined the floor along a wall. Stacks of legal papers competed for space with an ashtray and half-full Diet Pepsi cans on the desk. The credenza behind her was crammed with manila folders, office supplies, Styrofoam coffee cups, and books.
Carol herself was a sharp contrast to the chaos around her. She was dressed in an elegant white silk blouse with a short black skirt, and black nylons and pumps. Only bloodshot eyes and nervous hands revealed any stress. Just like her to stay gorgeous no matter how much her insides twitched. She had long chestnut hair, streaked handsomely with gray. Those few strands were the only signs of approaching middle age. Her eyes were dark brown and her lashes, thanks to a plastic surgeon she'd once dated, were a permanent, thick black. Although educated and professional, Carol looked more like a sultry cocktail waitress. She was pushing thirty-seven and shapely by virtue of good genes, not a healthy life-style. There was a subtle, smoky sexiness about her. The only imperfection was the scar from a deep cut on her left hand, which she tended to keep down at her side.
She had cold, cynical street smarts after years of representing crazies and thugs in a criminal-justice system whose treatment of her ranged from condescending to flirty to pissed. Still, there was a frail bitterness just below her surface. Streeter had seen it often. Unappealing, it could quickly and inexplicably erupt into rage.
"Are you still playing Trivial Pursuit?" she asked, referring to one of his hobbies. Her voice sounded snotty and she immediately regretted it.
"You're still playing lawyer," he shot back.
They were both quiet for a moment. Carol spoke first. "Truce. I didn't mean to say it like that. Really. This threat has me pretty wired. Let's start over, okay?"
He nodded. "Someone wants to kill you? Just relax and take it from the top. Who, what, when, where, why. Tell me everything."
Carol grabbed a cigarette from a crumpled pack of Merit 100s on her desk and lit it. She sat back and drew the smoke into her lungs like it was pure oxygen. When she exhaled, she leaned forward. "I'm pretty sure I know the who. A killer I represented five, six years ago. Kevin Swallow. I know for a fact he's murdered several people over the years. I represented him on a double homicide. He was convicted but he got out of prison on a technicality. He blames me for having to go there in the first place and now he wants revenge. That's the why."
"How do you know all that?"
"I talked to another client of mine who was in prison with Kevin down in Canon City. Evidently he told the client about his plans some time ago. He knew it would get back to me. Half the fun for Kevin is my worrying about it before he strikes."
Streeter nodded and adjusted himself in his seat. "How'd he threaten you?"
"He left a note and a calling card. That crazy bastard put this in my mailbox." She reached into a side desk drawer and pulled out the jar with the tarantula. "He's always been a freak for creepy animals like snakes and lizards."
Streeter held the jar up near his face. "It's called a rose-hair tarantula. They're not very poisonous, but I bet it got your attention." He set the spider on her desk.
"I'm impressed. All that reading you do pays off." She nodded. "It sure did get my attention. There was a note, too. A stupid poem. He really means business, Street."
"What went wrong with his case?"
"He thinks I blew it for him. See, he was charged with two homicides for a car bomb he put in a Mercedes belonging to a local orthopedic surgeon. Dr. Theodore Mallory. Teddy Mallory. It was big news back in '90."
"I read about it. Some kind of domestic battle, wasn't it?"
"That's the one. The doctor's wife hired Kevin to take Teddy out of the game. He was about to file for divorce and leave her flat broke. She didn't care much for that. Unfortunately for her, she told Kevin she didn't want to hear any of the details. When he planted the bomb he didn't know she'd be in the car with the good doctor that day. Two counts of murder one. He might've gotten away with it except that a neighbor saw him screwing around with the car and followed Kevin to where he was parked. The old man got a license-plate number. One thing led to another and eventually he made Kevin in a lineup.
"I got the case on a court appointment. Amazingly, Swallow had no prior felony convictions — arrests but no convictions — so he could take the stand. Juries hate it when a defendant doesn't testify. The only reason you don't let a client take the stand is prior felonies. And the only way the DA can introduce them is to impeach a defendant once he testifies. Juries hate defendants with priors even more than they hate ones who don't testify. But in the end, Kevin didn't take the stand. At least not in the second trial."
"Yes. The judge separated the cases into two trials. Kevin took the stand in the first one but he was found guilty. Now he had a felony conviction. I appealed, but while we were waiting, the second trial started. If Kevin testified in that trial, the first conviction would get in, so I kept him off. He was found guilty again. Then it got weird. He received life for the second murder. Later, the first conviction was overturned. Then Kevin got a new lawyer, who appealed the second conviction due to incompetent representation. The incompetency came from my not letting him take the stand. It was a good decision at the time, but when the court overturned, technically Kevin had no priors. He could've testified. My not letting him was grounds for a new trial. By then the old neighbor had died and the deputy DA was crippled in a car accident near Aspen. Both counts went down the tubes and now Kevin's free with no felonies on his sheet."