Chapter 1 - Dana
Chapter 1 - DanaI had a little more than three weeks to gather the Intel I needed to stop a major shipment of counterfeit goods from entering the country and being distributed unfettered. Everything my crew and I had done so far to solve the case had turned up a big, fat zero.
I sat with my back against the far wall at 'The Shanty', a hole in the wall pizza joint in the sleepy village of Morelville, Ohio near the Blue Rock State Forest. A TV blared up high in the opposite corner – some ‘true crime’ show. A couple of tables away, an Amish man stared intently at the screen while he sat and ate a sub.
“So, do you have any idea who the new boss is?” I asked the lean and dusty hired farmhand across the table from me.
Brice Buhler signaled the waitress for a refill. His dirty John Deere cap shaded his eyes. He looked bedraggled and tired. Wordlessly, he shook his head.
I was wearing worn Levi’s and a heavy work shirt too. I had my light brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. I was trying for a look that would let me blend in a bit with the locals. Strangers stood out in little towns like this one in Ohio’s Appalachian foothills. Strangers in dark business suits and button down shirts usually looked too ‘Government Issue’ and, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, were likely to be shot, no questions asked.
The cutesy blond waitress came over to refill Buhler’s cola. She eyeballed me up and down and smiled but I didn’t flirt back. Out here, that might get me shot too.
When she left, I picked up where I left off. “It’s really rough, I know. The economy stinks and now even hands are getting laid off. Just what the hell are you supposed to do? Where do you go now?”
“Nobody knows anything and everybody’s lookin’.” Brice drained the glass again and set it down. “I can barely put food on the table for me and my girl, I’m telling you. It’s too cool and wet to plant yet and it’s too early for calving too.”
I dug my wallet out and slid him a couple of twenties. “I feel your pain. I know what you’re going through.”
Brice quietly tucked the cash away. He looked around nervously but the Amish man was still staring at the screen, paying us no mind. Whispering, he said, “I’m not a snitch, ya know?”
I nodded toward him. “You have to eat. I’m not going to ask you for anything that would get you in any kind of bind. I just need something to prove to my boss that I’m on this.” I leaned back and tried to appear casual.
Brice looked around nervously again. Leaning toward my retreat and speaking almost without moving his lips, he admitted, “I’ll brew a little batch of ‘shine from time to time, when the weather breaks.”
“On your own, or do you pay someone protection?”
“Nope. It’s just me these days. I bootleg it myself too.”
“Your secret’s safe with me.”
I didn’t completely believe him about doing it all on his own but the information wasn’t really helpful to me anyway and pushing him for more would get me exactly nowhere.
Maintaining Brice as a Customs informant had been a long slog that I hadn’t relished. At least ATF wasn't onto him yet for the ‘shine. I'd had about enough of those guys stepping on my toes.
I nodded my thanks to him, got up from the table and paid the tab at the counter.
I stepped outside into a sunny late March day in Ohio. I regretted wearing the heavy work shirt but the weather was just so unpredictable this time of year anywhere in the Midwest. I headed up the main road, a state route actually, but I got sidetracked when I spotted an ATM sign in the window of the local everything and more store. I stepped in and drew out the $100.00 maximum the machine would let me have.
Drinks at the Shanty and my little advance to Brice had cleaned me out of ready cash. The service wasn't paying to grease informants these days. The money had come out of my own pocket.
Wanting to get the lay of the land, I walked further along, nodding at a couple of locals as I went. Pickup trucks, the occasional car and a few Amish buggies passed by along the road. The buggies tended to stop near the store or the post office but most of the other traffic went right on through the tiny village.
I ambled into the only gas station in town and grabbed a sweet tea out of the cooler. That ought to help me blend in just a little, I thought to myself.
As I turned toward the counter to pay for my drink, I all but smacked right into the most stunning butch woman I had ever laid eyes on. She took my breath away. My brain went into overdrive. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. Then, my ex flashed into my mind. I shuddered and tried to shake both thoughts away. This trip was all business and neither line of thinking was welcome.
The object of my attention reached out a hand to steady me. Taking hold of my elbow, she grinned and said, “Hey there. Easy does it.” She had a nice smile but, though she wasn't young, I noticed no smile lines. Smiling obviously wasn't an asset she used often.
I shook my head again, mumbled my thanks and strode to the counter. I handed the cashier a twenty and waited for my change. She picked up one of those counterfeit detection pens and attempted to mark the bill. Her line turned black. She pushed the bill back toward me.
“I'm sorry. I can't take this. It's no good. What else 'ya got?”
“I got that bill out of the ATM in the store not three minutes ago. If it's fake, then they're passing them.” The Customs Agent in me was slipping out, unbidden, as my anger level ratcheted up.
The cashier leaned right and eyed someone behind me.
The butch beauty stepped to the counter and asked, “Is everything okay Kris?”
Her voice was strong and low and smooth like butter. I hadn't noticed before. I didn't turn. I just bristled and dug in my pocket for another twenty. I handed it over. The cashier marked it too and then made change.
As I turned from the counter, I felt a hand on my elbow again. I looked up into those deep brown eyes asking the obvious question with my own. Not realizing I spoke out loud, I said, “What the hell?”
“We need to talk about where you really got that bill.”
Now quite angry, I asked, “And just who are you?”
Smiling again, the woman that was fast moving from dream to nightmare in my mind took out a badge.
“I'm Mel Crane, the county Sheriff.”
Crap! Just what I don't need! I looked her up and down more carefully this time. Tall for a woman at over six feet and broad shouldered, she was quite a specimen. Her jet black hair was cut short but with plenty on top for a good spike or to run your fingers through, if you were so inclined. I wasn’t, just now. That’s what I told myself, anyway. She was in khaki pants and a plaid shirt – the butch uniform anywhere else in the world but in this middle of nowhere, backwater. She absolutely exuded s*x appeal.
“I'm in a hurry. I really need to get moving.”
“I'll make it quick.” She smiled yet again. My legs became jelly.
She picked up the rejected twenty gingerly and slid it into her shirt pocket then she nodded to Kris and moved to the door. I really had no choice but to follow. There was only one way out for customers.
So this is the replacement for the sheriff, eh? The previous County Sheriff, Caden Carter, had been killed in a botched drug raid just prior to the last election. Carter was widely speculated as, at a minimum, being on the take. He was thought to be trying to up his polling numbers with a grandstanding move. What voters in the county didn't know was that he was involved in so much more than taking a little graft. He had been some sort of local key player in the counterfeit goods trafficking ring I was investigating.
My boss had combed through the Muskingum County Sheriff's Department looking for evidence of corruption or complicity in the conspiracy by other officers on the department in the ring. He'd turned up nothing so far. As his Chief Deputy, the new Sheriff, Melissa “Mel” Crane, had been a squeaky clean and very able replacement for Carter until a new Sheriff could be elected. Word on the street was that she didn't want the job full time.
I didn't like the way this woman was making me feel but I knew I could use a friend on the department. “Fine. I can give you about five minutes,” I said.
I noticed as we walked outside that she was carrying. Good girl, prepared on duty and off.
She stepped over to a somewhat muddy Ford pick-up truck. “If you don't mind, just a short drive? I don't want to have this conversation in this parking lot.”
I blew out a breath and climbed into the passenger seat. She reversed out of the lot and headed out of the village. A silent eternity seemed to pass but, in reality, we stopped on a field access road just out of town.
She looked me up and down. I found myself hoping that she liked what she saw and, seconds later, cursing myself for thinking that. Business. It's just business! I told myself.
She extended her hand. “Sorry. I didn't catch your name?”
I clasped her hand only briefly. I still felt as though I'd been burned. “Dana Rossi.”
She continued to inspect me. I took the same time to look at her more closely too because I just couldn't help myself. Her eyes were so dark, they nearly matched the color of her hair. Though she affected a masculine form of dress and demeanor, her soft face and heavy chest gave her womanhood away. Yes, she was full of allure and contradictions all rolled into one.
“You got any I.D.?”
Sighing, I pulled out my Customs Agent badge.
“You could have shown me that a little sooner.”
I smirked. “I'm undercover.”
“Are you carrying?”
“Look, Sheriff, I really only have a few minutes.” I desperately needed to get away from this woman before I said or did something I would regret.
“Mel, please. Call me Mel.”
“Okay, look Mel, I got the money out of the ATM machine at the store back there in town. I didn't take a receipt because I didn't think I'd need one but, dammit, I'm sure the guy at the counter saw me get the money. He wasn't even ten feet away. Anyway, aren’t those machines supposed to reject bad bills? Isn’t that one of their purposes? Arrgh!” I groaned my frustration. “I can't tell you any more than that because that's all I've got.”
I moved to get out of the truck. I'd walk the half mile back to town to get away from her and be on my way.
She put her hand on my arm again, but more gently this time. “Please? I just have a couple of questions. I really need some insight from someone else in law enforcement.”
“Thirty seconds ago, you didn't even know I was an agent.”
She ignored my barbed tone. “What do you do with Customs?”
“I work in special investigations.
“I see. Are you working on any “stuff” now that I should know about?”
“It's doubtful,” I lied.
She stared out the windshield a moment, lost in thought and then she flashed those pearly whites again. “Let me get you back to your car. I'm sure you’re eager to get on your way.”
I was surprised by her rapid willingness to drop the subject but I schooled my face and tried not to let my shock show. “I'll just walk back.”
“It's no problem. It'll just take a sec.”
We drove quickly back into the village. I pointed toward the pizza shop. “My car is over there.”
“Say, you wouldn't mind if I took a look would you?”
“At what? My car? What for?”
“With this counterfeiting operation I'm working on, I just can't be too careful.” Her gaze never wavered from my eyes.
Exasperated, I gave up. “Whatever! Be my guest, but make it quick.” I tossed her the keys and then walked over to a picnic table outside the shop. I sat down heavily. I just couldn't wait to get out of this little hole in the wall town and put some distance between myself and Mel Crane.
While she went about her search, I sipped my bottle of tea and thought about my mission. My team and I were working on a smuggling operation that was bringing knock-off designer goods into the U.S. by way of the Canadian border or across the Great Lakes. We'd snapped up a couple of low level guys and we'd been watching old Sheriff Carter hoping he'd lead us to the king pin when he'd been killed in the drug raid fiasco. We needed to find the new local boss or the big boss and we needed to find one of them soon.
“You're under arrest.”
I looked up from my reverie. “I beg your pardon?”
“You heard me. Stand up.”
“Why am I being arrested?”
“You have some merchandise in your trunk that, though it looks good, is definitely fake.
“You're making a big mistake!”
“We can talk about it at the station. Hands behind your back.”