"Tell me again why we're doing this, Den," Sylvia said into the deep silence pervading the deserted high school parking lot.
Den grinned at her shortened use of his name. His real name was Shamus McHart, but all his life he'd been called Denim by everyone except his father because of the intense color of his eyes. Only Sylvia said "Den" like it was a pronouncement of love.
Darkness had begun to fall. Won't be long now, Den thought, anticipation making him antsy. "I know you're bored, sugar, but did you forget? Football coach ... selling drugs to the kids?" he prompted.
Their hometown, Briar's Point, had a population of just under a thousand and served as something of a bedroom town to the next city over, Riverbend, with almost a half-million citizens. Briar's Point, like its fairy tale name, was a town made up of whimsically-named businesses and charming, old-fashioned neighborhoods. Sometimes, those friendly people had a tendency to be a bit ... well ... nosy. Just as in most small towns, Briar's Point citizens were constantly in everyone else's business. The only difference was that here, nobody made any bones about their right to know all.
Briar's Point and Riverbend had more than their fair share of crime, though the smaller town rarely had anything gruesome happen. Den had, perhaps naively, vowed to personally clean up Briar's Point back when he was young enough to be in awe of an uncle who'd taught him to believe good overcame evil most of the time.
Sylvia didn't return his grin when she glanced over at him. "Are you sure about this? We don't have any evidence, beyond what the football team captain's ex-girlfriend says. Let's face it, Blue Eyes, she probably wanted to meet you."
What Sylvia claimed wasn't way out in left field. It'd happened before. He and Syl tended to attract a lot of attention because of the glamorous promotional posters they'd put up around town that helped them get a lot of business without needing to go searching for more. When the ex-girlfriend led them into this case, he'd gone after the scent of something not quite right and roped an uncomplaining Sylvia along in the process. Sure, even if they figured out what was going on, they wouldn't get paid, but they were on the right track. He knew it.
"You do realize we have a ton of other cases we're being paid for, don't you?" his partner in crime lectured, not for the first time. "If we don't go after something solid soon, we'll starve."
Her logic fell on deaf ears. There wasn't much Den liked better than mulling a mystery and connecting all the dots until the true picture emerged. Even as a kid, he'd immersed himself in solving neighborhood "crimes," emulating his Uncle Marty, who led a life as a P.I. that Den found fascinating. Unless there was something a kid his age shouldn't see, his uncle took him along for the ride whenever he could, giving Den the benefit of his years of experience and wisdom.
Den ran a seductive finger up the sleeve of Sylvia's silky top. "We'll get to them, sweetheart," he promised. "Let's just see what we see tonight, all right?"
Sylvia sighed. "Okay," she said, but he could tell instantly she wasn't agreeing to his plan with the word. "Let's say we do witness something here, Den. What do we do then? Do you have a plan? I mean, drug dealers have a tendency toward fear of getting caught, which makes them dangerous and violent. Maybe I should call Orlando."
Detective Orlando Bateman. She and Bateman had been patrol officers on the Riverbend Police Department. Though she'd quit the force, her former partner would have given her a kidney if she needed it, maybe even if she didn't. He wasn't the only one offering, either. There wasn't much Den wouldn't do for her himself.
He shrugged. "Like you said, darlin', we don't have any proof at the moment. When we have it, we'll call your friend." He laid emphasis on the word "friend" before sliding his hand over the edge of her knee. "Everything'll be fine. Trust me. We won't need anything but our communication skills."
Smoothly, she pushed his hand off, and Den grinned again. She knew he didn't approve of carrying weapons, though she still carried one of her own on their little adventures.
About to say something charming--and she'd shoot him down for it, no doubt--he shut up when they heard a vehicle approaching.
"Get down!" Sylvia ordered under her breath. She yanked on his shirt, and he obediently followed her in sliding down under the windows of her Jeep.
His wary gaze locked with Sylvia's across the seat, Den could hear the vehicle approaching, passing...
Moments later, multiple car doors slammed, and Sylvia peeked up an inch to look over him out the passenger's window.
"Who is it?" Den whispered, wishing he'd risen first to see. Not that he minded Sylvia sprawled so intimately across his chest.
"Coach Ross ... and ... someone else. A guy. I've never seen him."
The scent of her hair was intoxicating. He tried not to breathe it in so deeply he'd get dizzy. "What else?"
"They're both holding gym bags. I see money in the one the coach handed over..."
The validation Den felt at these words flared to life in his gut. He'd been right! The high school football coach was a drug dealer. And this shark must be the one providing his dope.
"The stranger's getting back in his car."
She slid back and grabbed the small notepad and pen she carried everywhere. He watched her write something, recognizing the sequence as a license plate number.
As soon as the car roared past them, out of the parking lot, Den grabbed the ice scraper on the floor below his seat. "Stay here," he ordered. "Be ready to call your cop."
With that, Den jumped out of the Jeep and ran as silently as possible in the direction of the coach's car. The trunk was open, and the coach had lifted his arm to close it.
"Don't bother," Den warned, coming up in back of him and shoving the scraper into the small of his back.
The big, burly guy went stock-still and raised his hands in surrender. Den couldn't help grinning at his own inventiveness. He reached into the trunk with his free hand and unzipped the nylon duffel. Plastic bags of white powder lined the inside.
Den whistled as he stared at the incriminating load. "I don't think the cops'll believe this is laundry detergent, Coach..."
A click brought Den's attention back up to his captive. Coach Ross held a gun, and it was trained on Sylvia standing at the driver's side of the man's car. Absolutely stunned, Den couldn't get his mind to accept what was happening. He'd had it all in hand. Why didn't she stay in the vehicle?
Sylvia was right again. He'd gone into this without a plan, no way to defend either of them because he'd never for one second imagined the coach would pull, let alone have, a gun.
"I'm gonna give the two of you one chance to walk away from here and keep your mouth shut," Coach Ross said, clearly believing himself to be the one in control.
"Too late," Sylvia answered in a low, deadly voice Den had never heard her use before. He got goose bumps from it. "I already called the cops, you scum. You'll never sell drugs to kids again."
Den swallowed his fear at being so defenseless. "Let's calm down," he managed. "Turn to me, Coach. I'm the one you want. Leave her out of this. We don't want anyone to get hurt, do we?"
"You're crazy if you think I'm gonna stand here when she already called the cops, pretty boy."
"She's bluffing," Den insisted, trying to sound soothing. "Neither of us even have a cell phone on us. But I have this."
With that, he shoved the scraper hard into the coach's back. "Run, Sylvia," he ordered. Coach Ross immediately whirled on him with the gun. Den had never felt more exposed--and foolish--in his life. Here he stood with a useless purple, plastic ice scraper in his hand and no way of knowing what to do now. He lifted the tool, realizing only too blatantly that it was no threat at all compared to a deadly handgun aimed level on his heart. At least it wasn't fixed on Sylvia anymore.
In all the time he'd been running after puzzles that needed solving--on his own and dragging Sylvia along these past five years--nothing bad or dangerous had ever happened to them. She'd worried for nothing.
Reality check: Sylvia could get hurt. He could lose her over this fiasco.
Stupidity, plain and simple. All the times he imagined adventure, danger, he never imagined himself terrified and armed with a harmless ice scraper. He'd had the gall to believe he'd charm the criminal out of violence. Denim McHart didn't need a weapon when he had a killer smile.
The coach's finger squeezed the trigger. Den's shock made him too slow to react, beyond throwing the scraper at the coach's head. Then Sylvia was moving. She brought her foot up and aimed a kick at elbow level. The gun went off. Den had a split second of seeing life happening in slow motion just before pain like he'd never imagined tore through his knee, brutal and shattering. He screamed, his good leg buckling with the injured one.