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It was December in Dallas, Texas.
Cat Dupree hated winter and all that came with it. The weather made for miserable stakeouts, although stakeouts were a part of a bounty hunter's life. The time of year only added to the chip she carried on her shoulder and reminded her of all she'd lost.
When she was six, she and her mother had been shopping for groceries when they'd been hit by a drunk driver. It had killed her mother instantly and put Cat in the hospital for days. When she was finally dismissed, her mother's funeral was over, and she and her father were on their own.
Over the years, she learned to adjust, and she and her father grew closer. Then, just before her thirteenth birthday, and only days before she and her father were planning to leave on vacation, a man with a tattooed face broke into their house, stabbed her father and cut her throat, leaving her unable to scream as she watched him die.
After that, the Texas Social Services system finished the raising of Catherine Dupree, during which time she'd acquired the nickname Cat.
Being a bounty hunter had been a job she'd thought about during those long years. What better way to find her father's killer than to work in his world? At eighteen, she'd aged out of the system, then, two months later, gone to work for a bail-bondsman named Art Ball.
Art had been taken with the dark-haired, leggy teenager, and hired her to file and deliver papers to the courthouse, even though he hadn't needed the extra help. But, he would say later, it was the smartest thing he'd ever done. By the time she turned twenty-one, she had a black belt in Karate, was licensed to carry a firearm and had gone through several kinds of schooling to learn private investigation techniques, as well as the ins and outs of bringing home bail jumpers.
Also during that time, she began accumulating mug shots of perps with tattoos on their faces in hopes of finding her father's killer. She'd been looking for him ever since, and often thought it strange that a man with such markings was so difficult to find. Logically, one would have assumed that a man with the equivalent of a road map on his face should stand out in any crowd.
Every time she left to go after someone who'd jumped bail, Art would tell her to be careful. He would add to that by reminding her that she didn't have nine lives left like the cats who hung out in the alley behind the bail bond office, because she'd already used up two.
The ensuing years and her cold-blooded determination had given her a hard-nosed and enviable reputation. The fact that she was tall and, in many men's eyes, very beautiful didn't matter to her. She'd grown up fast, with a whiskey-rough voice and a bad attitude. She had a fine set of boobs, which she didn't consider an asset. They were, however, nicely distracting to the men she went after. Most of the time they were looking elsewhere when she threw the first punch.
Such, she was certain, was going to be the case today for bail jumper Nelson Brownlee. Following up on a tip, Cat had located Brownlee at an old apartment building in Fort Worth. Now all she had to do was take him down and bring him in.
Nelson Brownlee was a four-time loser with a penchant for armed robbery. He'd promised himself the last time he'd been released that he was going to move back to Michigan, but Nelson had never been good at keeping promises, even to himself. All the way to the Quick Stop, he'd been thinking something didn't feel right. Still, he'd ignored his instincts, robbed the store and then gotten himself caught on his way out the door by an off-duty cop. He figured it had served him right and never dreamed he would be able to bond out. But he had. He'd taken it as a sign from God to change his ways.
However, he and God had never been on very good speaking terms, and instead of making an appearance in court on his due date, he'd jumped bail. For the past week he'd been in hiding without money, hanging out at an old girlfriend's apartment in Fort Worth.
He'd been here six days, and was sick and tired of the scent of boiled cabbage and bratwurst. Even the free sex from the old girlfriend was losing appeal. So when the knock sounded on the door, he ignored his better judgment and went to answer it.
Cat's fingertips were numb from the cold, but persistence had paid off. Frostbite was a minor hazard of the job compared to the satisfaction of having a healthy bank account. Her badge was in plain sight, so there would be no mistaking her purpose when she confronted her perp. She checked for the set of handcuffs she tucked under the waistband in the back of her jeans, felt to make sure her handgun was in the holster beneath her coat, then ran her fingers along the taser in her coat pocket as she started up the stairs. Brownlee's woman had an apartment on the sixth floor, and in a building this old, an elevator did not come with the deal.
Cat's nose wrinkled as she moved from floor to floor. The compilation of scents coming from beneath the doors was staggering. She could smell everything from a backed-up toilet to boiled cabbage—a disgusting combination. It didn't, however, deter her from her goal, which was bringing Art's bail jumper back.
She wasn't even breathing hard when she reached the sixth floor. Her steps were sure as she strode down the hall, pausing only briefly before doubling her fist and pounding on the door of apartment 609. She re-checked the location of her gun and taser, then braced herself.
Nelson Brownlee opened the door. "Well hell," he muttered, and tried to slam it shut. The door caught on Cat's boot as she shoved her foot in the doorway, then swung inward as she pushed her way in.
"Now, Nelson," Cat drawled, as she grabbed him by the collar and slammed him belly first up against the wall. "That's no way to say hello. It's cold outside. The least you could do was offer me a hot cup of coffee."
"Like hell!" Nelson yelled, and bowed himself backward, then spun and took a swing at her.
She took a quick step sideways, dodging his fist. As she did, she came off one foot and kicked upward, landing a neat but lethal blow to his chin. He went down like a felled ox. She quickly handcuffed him, then grabbed him under the arms and was about to drag him out the door when she heard someone scream.
She dropped Nelson's arms and ran out of the apartment. Smoke was filling the stairwell from above, drifting downward in thick deadly fingers.
"Oh, Lord," she muttered, and glanced back inside the apartment. Brownlee was still out.
She couldn't leave without him, but he weighed a good hundred pounds more than she did. This wasn't good. She glanced down the hall again, grabbed her cell phone and quickly dialed 911. After giving the dispatcher the address of the building, she ran back to Brownlee. Already the smoke was so thick on the sixth floor that it was becoming difficult to breathe. Cat raced into the kitchen, grabbed a dish towel from the cabinet, doused it with water, then tied it around her face. The scent clinging to the towel was not enhanced by getting it wet, and sucking it up her nostrils came close to making her gag. Still, it was better to gag than burn.
Smoke was filling the apartment as Cat ran back to the living room and pulled Nelson into the hall. His head bumped hard as she dragged him over the threshold, but it couldn't be helped. Better a headache than dying.
"Come on, Brownlee, wake up!" Cat cried, but Brownlee wasn't talking.
Cursing beneath her breath, she got him as far as the landing, then bent over, and with what she would later consider a burst of adrenaline spurred by an overwhelming fear, pulled him up and over her shoulder in a fireman's carry and started down the stairs, staggering slightly under the weight.
Cat hadn't counted on the difficulty of balancing dead weight on a decline. Every time she took a step down, Brownlee's head bumped against her back, keeping her slightly off balance. But the heat behind them and the smoke swirling around their heads was all the reminder she needed to keep moving. They'd cleared the fifth floor and were just past the fourth floor landing when Cat sensed someone on the stairs in front of her. Her instincts proved right as she stepped down onto the heel of a boot.
Staggering to keep from losing her load, she grabbed the railing with one hand and the back pocket of Brownlee's jeans with the other.
"Move faster or get over! I'm coming through!" she yelled.
Wilson McKay was, what the waitress at his favorite diner called, "a looker." He was four inches over six feet, with a linebacker's build. His hair style wasn't a style at all, but a buzz-cut that was always in the process of growing out. He wore one small gold hoop in his ear, and denim or leather with equal distinction. His nose had been broken twice, and there was a small scar beneath his right eye. Every scar, bump and line on his face was a testament to the hard knocks of his life.
He had turned forty yesterday, and a bunch of his friends had thrown a big party for him down at the bar across the street from his bail bond office. The beer had been flowing freely. They'd even sprung for a day-old cake from the deli section of one of the big grocery stores across town. Their gift to Wilson had been Wanelle, the prettiest hooker on their side of the city, which was a title Wanelle held proudly, even if her claim to fame came from a real long stretch of the truth.
Still, Wanelle had all her own teeth and clear skin, and she was almost pretty when she laughed. Wilson knew her slightly. He'd seen her around Ft. Worth from time to time, but buying a woman had never been his style. He'd felt trapped when Wanelle had been presented to him, especially since his buddies had tied a big red bow around her neck. Turning her down would have been a serious social faux pas to his friends and to Wanelle. So, rather than hurt everyone's feelings, Wilson had graciously accepted, and they'd spent the night in her fifth floor apartment, only to be awakened by the scent of smoke.