Trent Malloy sat in his baby blue Stingray staring at a picture and thinking. His old friend, Margo Jones, looked back at him from the paper, mismatched eyes separated by a crease that ran down the length of the photo.
It had been at least a year since he'd seen her last. For her parents, the separation had been unbearable.
"We ain't heard from her in 14 months," Margo's mom had told him. "Her office won't let her own parents talk to her!"
"We knew stuff like this might happen when she told us she was considering a career in the FBI," her father had added in a sad voice that tugged at Trent's heart strings, "but she promised us we'd hear from her periodically. We can't get any straight answers from her office."
"We just want to know that our baby girl is alright, Trenton!" her mother had exclaimed.
Trent had assured them that he would get to the bottom of this, and several days of snooping, sleuthing, and charming the receptionist at the FBI building in Dallas had led him here, to an abandoned school house and, he was beginning to suspect, a dead end.
This would go so much faster, be so much easier, if he were to ask his office manager to do some research on the computer, but Kim didn't know about this case. Trent told himself it was because he didn't feel like explaining to her why he had promised Margo's parents that there would be no charge, but the truth was that this case was personal to Trent. He hadn't even told Carlos, his best friend and business partner! It was tricky, finding the time to do this without drawing the attention of his closest friends.
As if on cue, his cell rang, and he answered it immediately. "Malloy."
"Trent, where are you?" Kim Sutter's nasal voice asked. Everything was a matter of life and death for her. That trait would make her a good PI, if she ever found time to get licensed.
"I had to pick something up for the dojo," he lied.
"You haven't forgotten about Senator Thompson, have you?"
Trent had forgotten about the senator, actually. "Can't Carlos take this meeting?"
"He started on the Launey case today," she reminded him, a little impatiently. "Trent, what is going on with you?" Yep, with more experience, she'd make a great detective.
"I just forgot, that's all. I'll be there."
"Ok. Great. Oh, and Trent?"
"Be sure to take a shower. We won't impress the senator if you smell like Thunder Karate."
Carlos Sandoval scanned the police scene from behind opaque sunglasses. If asked, he would say that he was content with his decision to quit the police force and join his best friend's private investigation business. As he watched uniformed comps keep back the crowd and the media while the more experienced detectives went through the investigatory procedure, he felt a little pang of regret.
Carlos had been damn good at what he did.
There. His eyes focused on the woman who had caught his attention. She resembled the driver's license photo Kim had pulled from the DMV records, but in real life, she seemed both older and younger than the 2-D image. She had cut her hair and changed her make-up, but he suspected there was nothing she could do to lose that smile.
Carlos opened the car door and stepped down from his Dodge Durango. He knew one of the cops keeping the perimeter and made his way through the throng of spectators to him.
Danny took Carlos' outstretched hand vigorously. "Carlos! It's been forever, man!"
"No doubt. When I left they still had you on the short leash!"
"Yeah, well this isn't a much longer leash, but I get my own car."
Carlos laughed at that. "What happened here?"
Danny lowered his voice and leaned closer. "Single gunshot wound. No-one saw or heard anything. A homeless guy called 911 probably 2-3 hours after the fact to make sure taking the victim's coat wasn't a crime." Carlos looked over to where a grimy middle-aged man, far too thin to survive the coming winter, was giving his statement to an officer. Someone had given him a blanket and some food.
"Sniper bullet and some blood. She gave a general time of death, but won't know anything more until tests come back." Carlos cocked an eyebrow. "What?"
"You might as well say it, Danny. What's wrong?"
"I don't know. There's just something really weird about this one, Carlos. Weirder than normal, anyway. Someone cleaned up the crime scene. Danae things it was an accidental death."
"Accidental death with a sniper bullet."
"You're on a first name basis with the CSI?" Carlos asked, then. He was on a mission, after all.
Danny laughed and was about to answer, when Dallas Police Detective Henry Ryan interrupted.
"Sandoval, what are you doing here?" Ryan's voice dripped with annoyance.
"I'm on a mission," Carlos exclaimed dramatically.
"Mission somewhere else!"
"Well I would, but as I was trying to explain to officer DeNardo here, my mission involves her." He pointed at the back of the female forensics investigator, who was currently squatting on the sidewalk, examining something.
"Lord," Ryan said, turning back to Carlos. "You can have her." He turned to look back over his shoulder at her. "Launey! Visitor!"
"In a minute!" she yelled back. She pulled out a swab and began dabbing at a stain on the concrete.
"Be a good girl and hurry the hell up!" Ryan yelled as he approached her. Carlos could see her give instructions to a photographer before she sauntered off to see Carlos. If Ryan couldn't stand her, Carlos decided he liked her already.
"Danae Launey?" Carlos stuck a hand out to her. She pulled her latex glove off, peeling it so it inverted, keeping any biohazardous contaminant from spreading. She wiped the powder off her palm on her back pocket and took his hand. She was beautiful in her suspicion, with her burning eyes and tense mouth. She was no knockout, but Carlos admired her survival instinct. And, of course, her ability to annoy Ryan. "I'm Carlos Sandoval. I'm a private investigator."
"Working on a case, Mr. Sandoval? You know I can't tell you anything about my work." Her voice was deep and thin.
"I'm working a case, yes. You're a hard woman to track down."
Danae paled visibly, then flushed. "Why would you go to the trouble?" she asked.
"A friend of yours thinks your fiancé--"
"Ex." Her blue eyes simmered.
"Ex-fiancé might be a danger to your well-being."
Danae barked out a laugh. "Is that so?" She met Carlos' eyes. "So Nic asked you to keep watch over me and make sure Roger doesn't try anything stupid?"
"Yep." Carlos smiled broadly, which seemed to piss her off more.
"Great," she muttered.
"Carlos, I'm worried," Kim told him on his cell.
"Trent's twenty minutes late for that meeting with Senator Thompson."
"That's not like him," Carlos checked his watch. "I can't be there until 1:30 with this traffic."
"Not soon enough! This is big! Enormous!"
"Kim...you have to take this."
"You serious? I mean, I'm totally up for it, but I thought you guys weren't going to give me another chance after what I did last time with the Hogges...and the time before that with the Jacksons..."
"Kim," Carlos interrupted before she could talk him out of his decision. "Start the case. That's it. Look on the computer. Work your magic. But that's it. Ok?"
"Okay!" Kim hung up the phone and adjusted her hair. It was a little over-styled for this, but it would have to do. She dabbed at her lips to even her color and went out to the receptionist area.
"Senator Thompson, I'm afraid there's been an emergency with our agents. If you're comfortable with it, you can talk to me, and I'll pass it on to Trent and Carlos when they get back. I understand your time is very valuable..."
"It's fine," Senator Thompson said. I'm really more interested in Thunder Investigations because it's new, and that offers a degree of..."
"Discretion?" Kim offered.
"Anonymity," he said, mouth drawn into a half-smile.
"I believe..." Senator Thompson trailed off, sitting up straighter and tightening the knot of his tie. Trent and Carlos had taught Kim to watch body language and identify when people changed personalities. Senator Thompson was slipping into "politician mode," trying to keep a cool head and speak as sensitively as possible. "My wife has had a dramatic shift in personality lately."
It was a non-judgmental comment that insinuated nothing and was open to interpretation. "Senator Thompson, I'm going to be blunt with you. Anonymity aside, Thunder Investigations is known for its integrity and its discretion. In order for us to help you, you're going to have to trust us and lay everything down." Thompson's eyes locked with hers for a minute as he considered.
"It's not the affair that worries me," he said finally, dropping his politician guise. "There's something bigger at play, something to do with her new friends. That's all I can tell you really."
"Why?" Kim asked, jotting down notes. "Why doesn't a possible affair disturb you, but non-romantic friendship does?"
"No-one ever believes a politician has no knowledge of scandals in the marriage. I'm saving myself, here, if her friends do turn out to be trouble. And besides, I still love her for some reason. I want to protect her, too. Even from herself."
Kim sounded beyond upset. He couldn't remember the last time he had heard her so miserable. "Kim, what's wrong?"
"It's Trent. He's in the hospital."
Carlos felt the bottom drop out of his stomach. "Which one? I'll be right there."
"What about your case?"
Carlos sighed. "She'll be fine so long as she stays at work with people. This is more important."
"St. Matthew's ER. Carlos?"
"Yeah?" He was moving through corridors at the forensics building, trying to find Danae so he could get to the hospital as fast as possible.
"Drive carefully. Please."
Carlos flipped his phone shut as he rounded a corner and ran straight into his subject. Danae dropped the files she was carrying in a flurry of papers. "Jesus! What's the hurry?" she asked as she started picking up sheets one by one.
Carlos knelt and began piling the mess together, but Danae caught his wrist in a vice grip. "Let me," she said wearily. "There's a system."
"I'm sorry," he said as he rocked back on his heels. "I have to go."
Danae's very blue eyes snapped up to his, and she stopped sorting. "What about Roger?" Was she finally acknowledging that her ex was dangerous? So far, she maintained that he was rotten, but harmless. Carlos pushed the thought away for later conversation. "From what I can see, he's not stupid or capable enough to try anything so long as you're here with other people," he said. Danae cocked an eyebrow, causing Carlos to raise his own instinctively. "If he were to make his move, it wouldn't be on your turf, where you have power. It would be somewhere he had set up."
"Fair enough," she said. "I can't go anywhere until you get back?"
"I hope I won't be long. I am really sorry about this. It's an emergency. You have my number?"