In Too Deep
P.I. Harry Lonnigan wasn’t fooled by her disguise. The waif dressed as a boy, who was about to blow his cover and maybe get herself killed, was every inch a woman. His first priority should have been reuniting Charlie with her estranged father—but her first priority was to seduce Harry, and before Harry knew it, he was in too deep.
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In Too Deep
She had the soft, sweet mouth of a woman. And as she bent slightly at the waist, peeking out the front window of the quaint grocery shop, he inspected her bottom – and found it equally sweet. His palms itched, and he wasn’t certain if it was the need to caress – or swat.
Maybe she was a cross-dresser. Or she just had really bad taste in clothes. But she was definitely female, of that Harry was certain. He hadn’t even noticed her until she’d gotten too close to him, and then he’d picked up on her scent. It made him feel like a buck in mating season, it hit him so hard. He stared, unable to help himself, until she noticed he was staring. Then she gave him a sour look and moved away.
And still he stared. The battered brown leather jacket was a couple sizes too big, ripped at one shoulder seam. And the flannel beneath it was baggy and hanging loose over ill-fitting, patched jeans. Scuffed, low-heel boots with chains on the back gave the impression she was trying for a bad-boy biker look. Absurd. Even her slicked back, glossy dark hair, held in a short blunt ponytail at her nape, looked more female than rebel male. She had only one pierced ear, a small spent bullet dangling from the tiny silver hoop.
She kept her hands in her back pockets and a sneer on her face. Harry wondered what she’d done with her breasts, for they weren’t noticeable through the bulky clothing. Of course, maybe she was naturally small. He wouldn’t mind. He was a bottom-man himself, and he liked petite women.
Harry drew up short, appalled at the direction his wandering mind had taken. He wanted nothing to do with the woman, absolutely nothing.
Whatever, her excuse for aping a man, she didn’t need to be here now, at this precise moment, possibly screwing things up for him, definitely distracting him.
Harry Lonnigan eyed the unfortunate female with annoyance, now dividing his attention between her and the two men working their way to the cash register. He had a job to attend to. Yet there she was, trying to saunter like a man, trying to sneer in a manly way. Harry snorted, then despite himself, he breathed deeply, trying to detect her sweet scent again. Not the smell of perfume, but the smell of warm woman, a smell proven to drive men crazy.
He wanted to ignore her, but couldn’t. Who was she and what was she up to with her outrageous costume and bizarre acting? Only a complete imbecile would believe her to be male.
But just then one of the two men turned, eyed her, and gave credence to her costume by dismissing her without so much as a raised eyebrow. Harry was stupefied.
He came out from behind the rack of chips and strolled casually forward, in no hurry to draw attention to himself, but the female was getting entirely too close to the two men, trying, it seemed, to keep surveillance out the front display window without being seen. Whatever she was up to, she apparently wasn’t aware of the danger. Harry had no claims on being a hero, far from it, but he also wasn’t callous enough to watch a woman get injured, not if he could stop it.
Harry halted, then blinked. The little imposter – she barely reached his shoulder – had hissed at him out of the corner of her mouth. How had she known he was behind her? He hadn’t made a single sound!
The two men looked up. They were cocky and obnoxious young men, overly confident because they’d been running their scam in this area for far too long, at least that’s what Harry’s friend, Dalton, had said. He owed Dalton, and stopping these ruffians from their petty extortion would be adequate compensation, but it was a nuisance. Especially if some stray with a weird agenda was determined to interfere and complicate matters.
One of the men turned to face them, propping his elbows on the counter and giving them both an assessing look. “What are you doing?”
Harry pretended not to understand. He started at a shelf filled with canned goods, finally selecting some potted meant. He shuddered. Nasty looking stuff, potted meat. The little female remained frozen beside him.
After an extended silence where no one seemed willing to move, Harry looked up. “Hmm? You were talking to me?”
The guy pushed off the counter and started forward through the narrow, crammed aisles. His blond hair was long and greasy, like the rest of his body, and his eyes were pale, washed-out blue, red-rimmed and with lashes so light they were nearly invisible. Scraggly whiskers dotted his chin, a discredit to every manly beard ever grown. His partner, heavier and darker, also turned to watch while the proprietor, a man close to seventy, seemed to grow more agitated by the moment.
“Yeah, you. Who did you think I was talking to? The kid?”
Harry smiled. So the guy was a dolt, believing she was a man. Or rather a boy. Was he myopic? Couldn’t he smell her, for God’s sake? Harry cocked an imperious brow. “I didn’t hear the question.”
Bells jingled as a customer started in, then jingled again as the woman took in the situation in a glance and hurried back out. Obviously, the denizens of this area were well aware of what went on. They were all simply too old or too wary to stop it on their own. Harry wasn’t old or wary. He stared down at the man with utter disdain.
“I’m shopping. What concern is it of yours?”
Blondie’s face darkened and he straightened slightly. “You’ve been hanging around since we got here. Why haven’t you bought anything yet?”
Harry raised both brows. Pushy little bastard. “I’m selective.”
The young man scowled, his pale eyes going even paler, then he obviously decided not to pursue it. Probably given the fact that Harry stood a good six foot five, nearly half a foot taller than him. Though Harry dressed like a gentleman, few people ever thought of him as one. It was something, they said, to do with his eyes, though he tended to disregard such nonsense.
“Well, get done and get out. I don’t like you hanging around.”
Harry was willing to play along – up to a point. Right up until the punk turned to the girl and poked her in the chest with his finger, almost knocking her over. “Same goes for you. Beat it.”
Harry wasn’t a hero, he truly wasn’t, but he detested bullies. Beyond that, he couldn’t tolerate violence of any kind toward females, regardless of the fact the fellow was too dense to realize she was a female.
When he started to add an additional poke, snickering at the way she’d stumbled, Harry dropped the potted meat – no loss there – and snatched the fellow’s finger into his fist. Harry squeezed.
A loud wail of outraged pain filled the store.
Unconcerned, Harry asked, “Now, why would you want to inflict abuse on someone smaller than yourself?”
The guy’s knees were starting to give way as Harry ruthlessly tightened his grip. Blondie stared up at him, his face in a grimace. “He’s almost as tall as I am!”
“Not an adequate excuse. You’re obviously older. And moreover, I’ve decided I don’t like you.” Using a deft movement of his own hand, Harry twisted the hapless finger, attached to an equally hapless arm, until the man was forced to go on tiptoe, high-pitched curses winging from his mouth.
Pandemonium broke out.
The little female overflowed with umbrage. “I don’t need your help, you pompous ass!” The man ignored her, or didn’t hear her.
The bully’s dark friend rushed forward. “Floyd!” he called out, as he pulled a gun from his pants. His gaze lifted to Harry’s, narrow-eyed and mean. “Turn him loose before I shoot your head off!”
The hard nose of a gun barrel poked into Harry’s ribs. He cast a wry expression on the friend. “Now, that’d be rather difficult, with you aiming there. My head’s a bit higher up.”
His ill-advised insult got the gun immediately raised, and now he felt the cold metal against his ear. This comedy of errors was getting out of hand. Slowly, he loosened his grip. Floyd shook his hand and cursed, then shook it some more. He looked up at Harry with red-rimmed eyes. “Shoot him.”
“Damn it, you heard me, Ralph! Shoot him.”
Harry said a quick prayer. The girl, finally showing some small signs of intelligence, began inching her way nonchalantly toward the door.
“Get back here, damn it.” Floyd wasn’t about to let her, or rather him, get away. “I think you two are working together to distract us. Who sent you here?”
The little female blinked and her smooth cheeks suffused with color. “No one sent me! And I never saw that guy before in my life.”
Harry waited for a gasp, waited for the recognition because her husky voice had obviously been that of a female’s despite her efforts to lower accordingly.
He waited in vain.
“I can’t jus’ shoot him, Floyd. You know what Carlyle said. Keep it tidy. Besides, it’ll be easier if we jus’ let him go. He’s nobody.”
“Then what was he buttin’ his nose in for?”
Ralph lowered his brows in thought, all the while keeping the gun steady on Harry’s head.
Trying to placate them, Harry shrugged and said, “I simply can’t abide a bully.”
The gun smacked against his head, making his ears ring. “You can abide anythin’ Floyd tells you to! That’s how it’s done in these parts.”
Floyd grinned, and Harry was amazed to see he had fairly even white teeth. “So you didn’t like me pushing the scrawny runt around?”
Knowing he’d handed Floyd his revenge on a silver platter, Harry almost groaned. Damn his mouth anyway. He started to speak, his brain searching for words to defuse the situation, and in that instant Floyd backhanded the woman. She went sprawling, landing with a clatter in a stacked display of canned tuna. Harry growled, discretion forgotten, and lunged forward to grab Floyd by the neck. The proprietor shouted. Ralph, the only one thinking at this point, snatched the woman up, and held the gun on her.
“Stop now or the little bastard’s gonna be in some serious trouble.”
Harry stopped. The woman was dazed, he could see that, a bruise already coloring her jaw, but she was otherwise unharmed. Breathing hard with his anger, Harry slowly opened his hand and Floyd stumbled back two steps – and threw a punch. Harry caught the fist an inch from his nose, then made “tsking” sounds of disapproval. “I believe your associate said to stop.”
“He was talking to you, not me!”
Harry heaved an annoyed sigh. “Look, gentlemen, you obviously had business here and it’s gotten side-tracked. Perhaps you should let us innocent bystanders go and finish up whatever it was you started?” Rather than observing, as he’d wished, Harry had managed to complicate things hideously. Now he only hoped to salvage what he could.
The proprietor nodded his head in frantic, disgruntled agreement. His low, scratchy voice was that of an aged sailor, used to taking command. “Yeah, take the damn cash. But put the gun away.”
“Shut up, old man, and let me think.”
Harry considered that an unlikely prospect giving that Floyd obviously had very little brain to work with, but he held his peace. He didn’t want to rile anyone further, especially the proprietor who looked ready for violence. That would be all he’d need to tip the scales into the never-imagined.
After a considerable amount of time, Floyd nodded. “I think you’re a cop.”
That straightened his spine. Harry blustered. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
A low whistle slipped past Ralph’s drooping mustache. “Now that you say it, Floyd, he does look like a cop. Check out that coat he’s wearing.”
Rolling his eyes, Harry said, “You’ve been watching too much Columbo. It’s drizzling today, therefore I wore a trench coat. I hardly think its standard dress for the police force.”
“Come to that,” Ralph added, “you speak damn fancy for someone from these parts.”
“I’m not from these parts.”
Floyd jutted his chin forward. “Then what are you doing here?”
“I was in the area on business and I remembered I needed to pick up something for my dinner. It’s no more complicated than that, I assure you.”
“I don’t believe you.”
Well, hell, Harry thought, eyeing the female who now remained blessedly silent, her eyes downcast. Was he to be done in by a damn coat?
“Just to be on the safe side,” Floyd said, grinning, “I think we’ll take the boy with us. You call the cops, or try to follow, and I’ll kill him.”
The situation had gotten completely out of hand. “No, you can’t do that.”
Ralph tilted his head, his smile taunting. “And why not?”
The woman began to struggle. “I’m not going anywhere with you two! If you want a hostage, take him!” Her slender finger pointed in Harry’s direction, disconcerting him for just a moment.
“Somehow I think you’ll be easier to handle.”
She kicked at Ralph’s shin and he neatly sidestepped her, but Harry could see he was nonplussed by her somewhat feminine, awkward reaction. “What the hell?”
She tried to run. Harry was helpless, seeing the gun held steady, knowing any move on his part could get her injured. He wanted to curse at her theatrics, since she only complicated things further.
Floyd made a grab for her, and after his arms circled her chest, he too stopped, stunned. He released her as if burned, his eyes wide, going over her entire body in a single sweep.
“Take off your jacket.”
“Go to hell!”
Floyd began to laugh. “I’ll be a son of a… He’s not a boy at all.”
Dryly, for he was tired of the whole thing, Harry muttered, “How astute of you.”
Floyd swung around to glare at Harry, his voice a sneer. “I suppose you knew?”
Ralph drew a deep breath. “I don’t like you much, mister.”
The woman crossed her arms over her chest. “I don’t like him at all.”
Of all the nerve! Here he was, trying to preserve her ungrateful slender neck, and she-
“I said take off your jacket. Now. I want to get a better look at you.”
Ralph held the gun pointed at her chest while Floyd did his ordering. Gently, buying some time, Harry said, “Better do as they ask.”
She glared at him. “Go to hell.”
Trying to be reasonable, Harry said, “There you have it, gentlemen. Surely you can see you’re wasting your time.”
The elderly owner, fairly bristling in outrage, slapped an envelope down on the countertop, offering it like a bribe. “Here’s your damn money. Forget the girl and get the hell out of my store!”
“Be quiet, Pops. Now, even if you don’t take off the jacket, I won’t shoot you. That’d be too messy and would probably ruin the fun of this. And Ralph and I do like a little fun every now and again, don’t we Ralph?”
“But if you don’t take the damn thing off, and right now, I’ll have Ralph shoot him .”
The gun dutifully switched so once again it pointed at Harry.
After the briefest of hesitations, the girl shrugged, her chin elevated. “Go ahead, shoot him. What’s it to me?”
Harry’s chin hit his chest. Why that miserable little… “Now, see here!”
Enjoying himself, Floyd laughed. “So maybe you two aren’t working together after all. It doesn’t change anything. I want to see what you have under there, girlie. What are you hiding?”
She seemed to calm, and her eyes, which Harry just noticed were a very deep, dark blue rimmed with thick lashes, held steady. “Touch me and I’ll kill you.”
Both men laughed at that. Even Harry felt a small grin. The girl was so tiny, she couldn’t hurt anyone, yet she had her fair share of bravado. He shifted, moving a little closer to the front window. No one noticed.
“Maybe I’ll just have you get naked.”
The owner was outraged. “You’ll do no such thing! I have customers who come in regularly this late. It’s not a quiet time. You need to take the money and –”
“I told you to shut up.”
Harry moved another few inches toward the window. Between the girl and the store owner, things were far too unpredictable. Was he the only one to realize how grave this situation had become? If he could just get in view and signal Dalton that things had gone wrong, they’d have backup in a matter of moments. Dalton ‘s jewelry store was directly across the street and was likely next on Floyd’s list of stops.
He could see Floyd getting agitated, and besides being stupid and a bully, Floyd could well be trigger-happy. Harry didn’t consider it wise to push him too far.
To distract the men from his subtle movements toward the window, he suggested, “You don’t want my death plaguing your conscience, sweetheart. Remove the jacket. You can’t have anything all that singularly special to hide.”
Floyd wasn’t as confused as Ralph. “Yeah, it ain’t like all of us men here, even Pops, haven’t seen a woman naked before. And I really will have Ralph shoot him. Hell, I’m looking for a reason.”
Her brows beetled down and her eyes narrowed. “It’s no skin off my nose what you do with him.”
At that moment Ralph looked out the window and cursed, then cursed again. “There’re a couple of cops over at the jewelry store.”
He was distracted for that moment, and Harry started forward, only to be brought up short as Ralph swung around, the gun moving wildly in his hand from Pops to the girl to Harry. “What do we do now, Floyd?”
But Floyd was already moving, snatching the envelope from Pops with a muttered warning, then pulling his own gun. He pointed it at Harry. “Out the back. You’re coming with us.”
Harry’s first thought was, Thank God, they’re taking me instead of the girl. Not that he was a hero, but he was trained for this, knew how to handle it. But then Floyd grabbed her, too.
Harry’s muscles tightened all the way down to his toes. “Stop and think, Floyd. You don’t need her. She’ll just slow you down.”
“If she tries that, she’ll be sorry.” And he sounded deadly serious, all fun and games over.
“One hostage is more than adequate.”
“Be quiet, damn it. I’ve heard all I want to hear from you. Now move.”
With guns at their backs, Harry and the girl were forced to exit out the rear of the store. Was Dalton still waiting for a signal? He wouldn’t get one, not now. But why were the police there? Had Dalton somehow known things had gone wrong even without Harry’s signal?
There were no answers to be found, and no more time to consider the circumstances as they were led through a light rain to a rental truck left parked in the dark alley. The sun was all but gone, and the mid-June air felt cool and thick. Floyd waved his gun, directing them into the open back of the truck. After hopping in, Harry turned to assist the woman, but she scrambled awkwardly in on her own, disdainfully ignoring his hand.
“You drive, Ralph. I’ll ride in here with the little lady.” His grin was more of a leer. “You two, into the corner. Sit and keep your mouths shut.”
Harry took off his long trench coat and gallantly spread it over the dusty bottom of the empty truck floor, then signaled for the woman to sit. She gave him a furious look and perversely retreated into an opposite corner, slumping down and wrapping her arms around her bent legs. Her position pulled the jean material tight around her thighs and he could see she was slender, her bottom rounded. He forced his gaze to her face.
She looked dejected and in deep thought, but not, thankfully, as frightened as she should be. Her cheek was dark and swollen where she’d been hit, spurring his anger. Harry carefully lowered himself, keeping his eyes alternately on Floyd and the woman.
He hadn’t counted on such a predicament when he’d agreed to take care of things for Dalton. He certainly hadn’t counted on his attention being diverted by a woman. Any woman, but much less one who was trying to be a man and had an attitude problem. Out of all the female types in the world, headstrong, bossy, controlling women were his very least favorite. He’d had his fill of them long ago.
Yet he couldn’t seem to keep his eyes off her.
Dim illumination filled the back of the truck as a small, battery-operated light came on. Ralph pulled the door down from the outside, sealing the three of them in. Harry knew he had to adjust his plans. He couldn’t risk the possibility of being taken among the conspirators. The odds wouldn’t be good and now he had an outsider to think about.
He eyed the woman again. Why was she involved? He didn’t doubt for a moment that she’d been up to something, but his brain couldn’t dredge up a single plausible motivation. She hadn’t been aware of what she’d blundered into until it was too late, of that he was certain.
Floyd paced the back of the truck, agitated, for a good fifteen minutes while the truck raced farther and farther away from the police. No sirens sounded in the distance; there was nothing but the gentle patter of the rain and the grinding of the shifting truck gears.
“Sit together,” Floyd said as he slid down the opposite wall and propped the gun on a knee. “I want to be able to keep you both in my sights.”
Harry merely raised a brow at the woman and, with a muttered oath, she stood and came to him, then plopped back down. “Bastard,” she whispered.
Taken aback, Harry said aloud, and with a good deal of annoyance, “I beg your pardon?”
Suddenly she turned and slugged him in the arm. “This is all your fault! They were paying me no mind until you drew their attention to me.”
End of Excerpt
In Too Deep
is available in the following editions:
Out of Print Editions
February 1, 2000