Chapter One: Casting the Dice

Casting the Dice

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The New Orleans mansion Hal Guidry eyed lay as quiet as the grave. For now. “What do you bet everyone’s still asleep?”

“Until we ring the doorbell.” His brother, Jack, studied the intercom on the locked gate, steam from his coffee barely rising in the sluggish July morning. “How’s the shoulder?”

“I can handle the arrest if that’s what you’re wondering.”

While Big Easy Bounty Hunters carried collective responsibility for recovering a fugitive, he and his brothers took turns being lead man. This skip was his.

Hal matched the address on the bail piece with the metal numbers on the high wrought iron fence. “As far as I can tell, we’re in the right place.”

“Yup.” Jack read over his shoulder. “This is it.”

Live oaks branching overhead muted clangs from the streetcars two blocks away, but Hal’s boot heels struck the sidewalk like gunshots. He turned around at the corner and came back, zipping his cotton windbreaker halfway to hide his T-shirt and sidearm.

He’d have to reveal his identity to make the arrest lawful, but he saw no point in broadcasting their mission. “A driveway opens onto the side street, but you know what would be perfect?”

“We don’t care about perfect, bro.” Jack set his mug inside the sport utility parked behind Hal’s and grabbed his own chest protector and jacket.

His brother might not, but everything about this takedown had to be executed correctly. He’d been out of commission for five months and needed to contribute to the collective kitty, not deplete it with hospital bills.

“We only care about done.” Jack caught his hair in an elastic band. “When we finish here, why don’t you come with me this weekend? I hear the fishing’s the best in years.”

“I’m not counting this job a success until the fat lady sings.” Hal locked his car.

“Stop being so hard on yourself.” Jack clapped his shoulder. “Don’t give me that look. We’ll be fine.”

Hal hadn’t been fine in years. “You ready?”

A scream tore apart the morning quiet. Hal’s nerves skittered. He caught his brother’s eye. “That wasn’t a pet parrot.”

“Definitely sounded human.” Jack leaned on the doorbell.

Hal raced down the side street. “The driveway’s open.”

“Good thing.” His brother panted up to him. “Because no one’s answering the front.”

Together they heaved open the heavy gate and squeezed through the opening.

“A car’s here. Don’t know if it’s my skip’s, though.” Hal stepped around the empty sedan parked on the bricked pavement. Condensation beaded the inside of the glassed-in sun porch containing wicker chairs and potted plants.

“House A/C is running,” Jack said. “There’s a light on, too. Somebody is home.”

“Proceed with caution. Skip was arrested for assaulting a traffic cop.” Hal vaulted the back steps and grabbed the cold brass knob, expecting to find the door locked.

Instead, it drifted open. Hal stepped inside. On the kitchen island a champagne bottle rested on its side beside a cluster of plastic flutes, paper napkins and several trays of spoiling sandwiches. Another heavy uncorked bottle stood sentry over the overflowing trash bins.

Hal braced for the snarl of a dog or the beep of a security panel, but nothing made a sound. The open gate, the unlocked house… He rubbed his jaw, uneasiness twisting inside. The bail sheet gave him the authority to arrest, but what they were doing at the moment felt too much like breaking and entering.

“Someone had a wild party.” Jack scanned appliances that looked better suited to a spaceship than a nineteenth-century house. “Everyone must have been drunk out of their minds. They sure as heck didn’t lock up. This place feels abandoned.”

Hal strode to the kitchen door. “I’m more interested in finding the person who screamed.”

Right on cue, another scream pierced the stillness.

He whipped past a dining room table littered with whiskey bottles and used glasses. In the central hall, the scent of fresh flowers wafted his way. The deserted house creeped him out, but someone was here, someone who needed help. “I’ll take the upstairs.”

“Yell if you need me.” Jack jogged toward the front of the house.

Four doors lined the wide upper hall, the last one ajar. Hal crept closer. “Anyone here?”

Nobody stepped from any of the rooms.

He pulled his weapon and toed open the last door. His gaze took in the dark period furniture and a four-poster bed before landing on the body.

A slender woman lay crumpled on the floor beside a striped plastic or silicone object.  Long blondish hair shrouded her face and fell across her chest. He slid his gaze over the sleeveless white top and down the tight blue skirt to her bare tanned legs. Her chest didn’t seem to be rising and falling. Was she dead? “Hey, lady!”

No response. His heart thudded. As far as he knew, people died of fright only in horror movies.

Movement yanked his gaze to her folded legs in time to see a reptilian head rise from behind. A forked tongue slithered out, and the snake slunk to the floor in front of her, dark scales glistening. He recognized the markings, and air leaked from his lungs as if his dive buoyancy compensator malfunctioned.

Jesus, Joseph, Mary.

He stowed his gun and raced to the top of the stairs. “Jack!”

His brother came into view below. “What’s wrong?”

“Grab one of those umbrellas from the front door and some sandwiches.” The snake could be a pet or left by someone at the wild party. No matter, he had to see get her away from the thing first and could use some help. “Hurry.”

            He skidded to a stop in the bedroom doorway. The snake slithered under a chair, but a second snake now coiled in front of the woman.

“All clear down here.” Jack pounded up the stairs and handed over two sandwiches. “No one’s around. Who needs the food?”

“The snakes might be interested.” The roast beef smelled rancid. His gut went queasy, but he pitched them toward the walk-in closet entrance.

“That one looks like a water moccasin.” Jack pointed to the first snake wriggling toward the food.

“They both do.” Hal stepped out of the way. “If one of them bit her, she could die.”

“She looks dead already.”

“Move the snake from next to her so I can check.”

His brother poked with the umbrella. The reptile lashed out, and he danced away. “This isn’t long enough.”

Hal swiped sweat from his lip. “You’re moving him.”

“Not much.” On the second jab, the snake’s fangs sank into the fabric, and Jack dragged the animal toward the closet. “Stay with your buddy.”

He dropped the umbrella. “Are these the only reptiles?”

“I’m not planning on hanging around to find out.” Hal stared at the oversized rubber glove halfway off the woman’s hand and pressed fingers to her neck.

She looked a few years younger than him. Late-twenties. A cursory scan of her body revealed no puncture marks, but he had to assume the worst.

“She’s got a pulse, but who knows how much longer.” He scooped her into his arms. The striped silicone mitt slipped off her hand. He kicked the object aside, the action sending a silky lock of hair over his hand. Nerves rat-a-tat-tatted up his arm. “Let’s get her out of here.”

Jack tossed the silicone tiger mask and glove on the bed and lifted a small flesh-colored object from the bedside table. “What about this? It’s squealing like a hearing aid.”

“Take it and anything else that looks like hers.” Hal carried the woman into the hall. “And close the door.”

Jack thundered down the stairs after him and threw a woman’s jacket over his shoulder. “She apparently had no shoes. Not that I could find.”

“Leave a note about the snakes upstairs.” Hal scanned the counters.

“Forget it. No point in letting anyone know we were inside.”

“Could be from anyone who was at the party. Look in a drawer or over there by the charging station.”

Jack found a pad and scribbled a message. They left and descended the steps to the drive. Hal clutched the woman closer and tilted his head toward a rumble from the street. “Is that the neighborhood security cop?”

A private cop in this tony district would definitely give them trouble for entering the house. “Yes or no?”

“Couldn’t tell, but it’s safe now.” Jack opened the driveway gate. The aromas of sizzling bacon and fresh coffee meant the neighbors were waking and would soon be going to work. “You know who she is?”

“The fugitive we’re after is the only listed resident at this address.” Hal started toward their cars.

The woman jerked to life. He nearly dropped her before adjusting his hold. Carefully. Hold her like you did those baby birds you rescued.

“Don’t, don’t!” Her eyes blinked open and filled with shock.

“Take it easy.” He slowed his pace. “I’m getting you someplace safe.”

“Put me down.” She pounded a fist on his chest.

“In two seconds.” He cupped her closer.

“Help!” She struggled against his hold.

Hell. He needed to get this woman out of his arms. Then she’d be calmer. Right now, she reacted to a strange man carrying her away. “Jack—”

His brother spun around. “Right hip, lower pocket. Open my passenger door and see if you can find the pair of flip-flops in my cargo space.”

Jack pulled his keys and jogged ahead.

“Put me down.” The woman punched him again.

Pain streaked over his collarbone, burying claws in his neck. He gritted his teeth. She’d gotten past his vest to slam his scar. She opened her mouth to scream again, but he caught her gaze.

“Shush.” He kept his voice calm. “You’re safe.”

Her body stiffened.

He nodded. “You’re safe now.”

Jack had the Pathfinder’s door open, and Hal settled her on the passenger seat.

She clutched the door handle and leaped out. He managed to catch her before her feet hit the ground, but she squirmed in his hold, like a tadpole. Sheesh.

“You’re safe,” he repeated and set her back in the car. The smoothness of her skin set his pulse jingling. He retreated a step and raised his hands. “Stay put.”

“She probably wants this.” His brother handed him the hearing aid.

“Thanks.” Hal held out the instrument. “Is this yours?”

The center of his palm tingled under her silent stare, but she finally lifted the small instrument. He rubbed that hand over his hip.

Her fingers tunneled under the long fall of her taffy-colored hair, and the faint electronic sound stopped. Her blue-green gaze ambushed him. “Say something.”

Hal exchanged a look with Jack and said, “Say something.”

She switched hands and fingered the top of the other ear, frowning. “Say it again.”

“Say something.” He repeated, wondering if she had two aids. “Say it again.”

“Much better.” She dropped her hands. Her face relaxed, but she still looked dazed. Like she’d been drugged. Or snake bit.

“Who are you?” She clutched her arms, eyeing him with suspicion.

“A friend offering help. Jack, get one of those bottles of water from the back.” Hal took the flip-flops from his brother and handed them to the woman. “Where we’re going you need to wear shoes.”

He’d almost said “hospital” but that might set her off if she was psychologically disturbed. She didn’t seem unbalanced to him, but he wasn’t the best judge of women.

“I don’t want to go anywhere.” Her mouth set in a mutinous line.

They couldn’t go anywhere until she trusted him. She might jump out on the way. He jerked his thumb toward the pink mansion, getting antsy. “You didn’t want to stay there, did you?”

“I don’t know. Depends. Who are you?” She squinted even though he’d parked in deep shade.

Was light sensitivity a symptom of snake bite?

“I’m Hal Guidry.” He smiled. “A friend. Everything’s going to be all right.” What a crock.

Her blondish eyebrows scrunched together. “Do I know you?”

You do now. “Yes. I’m Hal.”

“Hal?” Her eyes widened, and she repeated his name wonderingly.

Warmth spun through him at the sound of his name of her lips. He suppressed a smile. Something about her… Stop.

He did need to know what she’d been doing at the house at some point, and whether or not she knew his fugitive, but first aid came…first. “Yeah. Hal.”

He smiled again to reassure her. “That’s Jack.” He gestured toward his brother standing on the sidewalk with his phone. “We’re the good guys.”

His brother made a rude noise, and Hal glared at him. Jack should agree to avoid confusion.

“Is he a friend too?” The blonde frowned.

Hal nodded and resisted the impulse to check the time. She’d stopped fighting him but who knew what might set her off again.

“Who are you?”

The same question again.

The snakes had been all over her. Was this confusion a symptom of venom poisoning?

“Are you going to answer me?” She sounded like his dictatorial fourth-grade teacher. Sort of, because in a strange way, she sounded spacey, too. “Why did you have my hearing aid?”

“It was on a table.” Hal propped his hands on his hips. “Straighten your legs. Let me see where you’re bitten.”

She complied, which Hal put down to her not understanding the situation. He made a visual exam of her shapely legs. No puncture wounds, no swelling, so what was wrong?

“Why do you think I’m bitten?” She lifted her chin.

Uh-oh. She didn’t remember the snakes, and he didn’t want to find out how she’d react if he told her. “What’s your name?”

She drew back, her eyes narrowing in suspicion. “I’m Annie Swanson. What’s yours?”

“What do they say?” Jack called from behind him. “Third time’s the charm.”

“Could be she’s not hearing everything.” Hal handed her the bottle of water. “Have some water. Relax. Put on the shoes.”

He lowered her window and reached for her door.

She grabbed his arm, fear twisting her delicate features. “Please don’t leave.”

“I’ll be right over here.” His gut pinched at the idea she thought he’d abandon her. He extricated his arm, shut the door and stepped to the sidewalk where his brother held his cell.

“One minute she’s fighting you, the next she’s holding tight.” Jack shook his head. “She’s definitely got issues. I’m calling an ambulance.”

“Hold off.” Hal rubbed his aching shoulder scar. Annie’s condition looked to be way above his pay grade, but he wouldn’t feel right dropping her in someone else’s lap. “If she’s scared, that could explain why she doesn’t know what’s going on. Someone needs to be around to make sure she’s safe.”

“She’ll be fine with the paramedics.” Jack freed his ponytail and wound the elastic around his wrist. “She could have escaped from the DePaul Hospital.”

“That place is too far away for her to have wandered here.” But someone could have picked her up there and dropped her here.

“You don’t look sure.” Jack ran a hand through his wavy hair.

Should he listen to his older brother? His arrogance had gotten him hurt badly on his last arrest. But this situation seemed to be more about human decency than anything else. “You wouldn’t abandon her either.”

“You’re right. What did your friend say about the air conditioning when you talked to him earlier?”

“I need to go, Jack.” Hal called his old diving buddy and moved to the curb. “What’s happening with your BIL? My elderly aunt’s really suffering.”

“It’s July.” Trey chuckled. “But he said he’d get to your place today.”

“Thanks. I owe you.” He ended the call and gave Jack a thumbs-up. “Today sometime.”

Jack jogged over. “Almost forgot. Found these in the bedroom.”

His brother handed him a business card and a playing card. “Dump the woman at the hospital. Remember you’re on the clock here.”

“I don’t need reminding.” He needed to arrest Randolph Lemoyne before the bond expired, but he could not abandon Annie Swanson like seaweed on a storm-tossed beach.

*  *  *

Annie drank more water and lowered her hand as slowly as possible. Moving made her feel woozy. Daylight hurt. Squeezing her eyes shut helped, but a million hammers still continued to pound inside of her skull.

She tried opening them, but everything shifted out of reach and became blurry. Here one minute, gone the next. Thinking hurt worse because of the headache, but there was something else going on. When she looked around, it was as if she’d never seen that pink house or this shady street. But she must have come here before. She had no clue when that “before” had happened or what she’d been doing then.

The man calling himself a friend climbed behind the steering wheel. He’d startled her at first because she didn’t recognize him. But she must know him. Why else would he be helping her?

The best thing she could do would be to stick with him until she recovered from whatever left her drained and exhausted. And drifting in a fog.

His car door closed, the sound a cannon blasting through her head. She winced and opened one eye.

He watched her. “You okay?”

“Maybe.” She swallowed against rising nausea, and quickly took another sip of water. “I don’t feel good.”

“Like you’re going to throw up?”

She held her breath, and the sick feeling faded. She nudged the bottle into a cup holder. “I’m not sure.”

She didn’t feel right. Sweating one minute then freezing the next. She clutched her hands in her lap. “I’m shaky.”

The click of his phone hitting the dash sent an ice pick through her skull. She rubbed her temples and closed her eyes. “Do you have to throw things around?”

No response, but she didn’t care whether or not he answered. She didn’t care about anything. Except finding a way past her pain. The motor started, but the car didn’t move forward. She peeked at him. “Is something wrong?”

“Do you live there?” His dark eyes roamed her face. “In that house where we met?”

The house where we met. “I don’t know.” She stared at him. “Where is the other man?”

“Jack?” Dark eyebrows shot up. “He left in his car.”

That couldn’t be right. She needed to know because… Her mind blanked. “Not him, your other friend.”

The man behind the wheel swiveled to stare at her. “You were completely alone.”