The Parrot Lounge, like a pulse point in a sleeping giant, nestles in a low corner of a three-star vintage hotel in downtown Houston. The hotel's ads, aimed at attracting traveling businesswomen, do their job well. Any happy hour, Monday through Friday, at least a dozen solitary women enjoy a predinner cocktail at the Parrot, while listening to the tinkling chords of sexy piano music and wishing for a more exciting evening than they'll find on cable TV.
Dixie Flannigan, feeling conspicuous in her jeans and sweatshirt, fingercombed her short brown hair and scanned the sleekly professional clientele as she sauntered to a rear table. The skip she'd spent the afternoon locating sat at the piano bar. His Armani suit brushed the silk skirt of a trim brunette, who smiled up at him, all lips and eyelashes. As Dixie ordered a club soda with a twist, the brunette laughed vivaciously, apparently at some witticism the skip had whispered in her ear.
Lawrence Riley Coombs, Dixie recalled from his file sheet, was known to be a charmer. Tall, rich, handsome, and politically connected, Coombs personified the exact opposite of men she usually hauled back to justice. Treat him gently, the bondsman had told her.
When the waiter, sweeping a disdainful glance over Dixie's attire, minced away to fetch her drink, she rang up the bonding office number on her cell phone.
"I have a fix on Coombs. You want to notify HPD, or should I?"
"We'll do it." The crisp female voice belonged to an undergraduate enrolled in the Criminal Justice program. The girl nurtured visions of single-handedly curtailing world crime and worked the bonding office night desk to pay her tuition.
"If you get a unit dispatched right away," Dixie suggested, "maybe I'll arrive home tonight before my friend feeds my dinner to the dog."
"I'll get right on it. Uh . . . you don't want to bring Coombs in yourself?"Not if I can avoid it.
He stood six-one, 190 pounds, according to his arrest sheet--and Dixie could see plenty of muscle filling out his fancy suit.
"I think your boss wants this one handled by Houston's finest," she hedged, watching Coombs lean close to the brunette, his hand resting on her thigh. The woman glanced at another woman beside her and appeared to be blushing.
Everybody had been shocked, the bondsman claimed, when Coombs missed his trial date that morning. His family was old money and, while Coombs was a laze-about, dividing his time among gambling, small game hunting, and women, he'd never been in any real trouble with the law before. Dixie, a former Assistant District Attorney, had followed the case closely in the newspapers. Lawrence Coombs was accused of having raped Regan Salles, a thirty-five-year-old hairdresser at one of the city's upscale salons. Date rape, the newspapers called it. But Dixie knew the ADA on the case and had seen photographs of Salles after it happened--two ribs broken, bruises blackening her entire pelvic region--damage that wouldn't show in ordinary street clothes. Dixie wondered if the vivacious brunette at the piano bar was practiced in self-defense.
Assured that the bonding agent would "get somebody out there pronto," Dixie thumbed the phone's DISCONNECT button and relaxed for the wait. Her part of the job was finished.
She watched Coombs speak to the piano player, slip a few folded bills into the musician's tip jar, and return his attention to the blushing brunette. When the music instantly segued into the opening chords of "Some Enchanted Evening," Coombs took the woman's hand and led her to a postage-stamp dance floor near Dixie's table. Whatever else the man was, he was drop-dead handsome and silver-spoon elegant.
In a resonant baritone, Coombs began to sing, intimately, as if the words were meant only for the woman in his arms, yet loud enough for others to hear.
"Some enchanted evening . . ."
Conversation quieted. The man was worth a listen. His voice was full, warm, and smooth. He moved with a sexy, graceful ease, holding the woman as if she were fine crystal.
Was she special? Dixie wondered. Or had Regan Salles also received such ardent attention from Coombs before their "date" turned ugly?
When a club soda appeared at Dixie's elbow, she paid rather than run a tab. The minute Coombs was in custody, she intended to split. For the first time ever--and Dixie was fast approaching forty--she was in a relationship that mattered to her. She didn't want to screw it up. Yet five nights this week, work had kept her out late, and her excuses were beginning to sound lame even to her own ears.
She watched the handsome couple whirl about the floor, totally into themselves, as if everyone else in the room had ceased to exist. When they brushed past, Coombs still crooning softly, Dixie read raw desire in the woman's flushed face. The skip certainly had a knack for cozying up fast.
Two other couples had joined Coombs and his partner on the dance floor, but everyone else in the room was either alone, as Dixie was, or with a group. Did all these women have as tough a time as she did making a relationship work?
Dixie jabbed her swizzle stick at the lemon twist in her glass. Why did life have to be so damn complicated? She wanted closeness. Companionship. At the same time she wanted freedom and solitude. How could she expect a man to understand such a dilemma when she didn't understand it herself?
As her eyes slid past the bar, they locked on someone she knew, someone she did not
want to talk with tonight.
Too late. Casey James, stringer for the sort of tabloids that feature alien sightings and virgin births, was already off her bar stool and beelining for Dixie's table.
"Counselor! I knew
that was you sitting there!" Casey waved a fat cigar in one hand, a drink in the other, as she pushed toward Dixie between tables, a camera swinging from one shoulder. "I haven't seen you since our interview after that murder case you cracked!"
She stopped short of the table, slapped the cigar hand over her mouth, and looked hastily from side to side.
"Oh, Judas Priest, are you on a case now?"
Dixie had already darted a glance at Coombs. He seemed absorbed in stroking the brunette's silken hip and serenading her ear. Whether or not he'd heard, the worst was done. No point now in being rude.
"Hello, Casey. What brings you to the Parrot?"
Casey set her drink on Dixie's table and dropped her squatty body into an empty chair.
"Oh, honey, it's absolutely the best
place for picking up stories. Buy a woman a drink, she'll tell the wickedest tales you ever heard--truth! Clients stealing from other clients, secretaries setting their bosses up for divorce or blackmail, or both, couriers delivering anonymous packages containing live snakes, spiders. Every one of those stories I learned from buying a woman a drink." She paused to draw on the cigar, piggish black eyes ogling Dixie. "May I buy you
a drink, honey?"
Dixie couldn't help grinning at Casey's gall.
But when she looked back at the dance floor, and the piano bar beyond it, Coombs and the brunette were nowhere in sight.
Excerpted from Rage Factor by Chris Rogers. Copyright © 1999 by Chris Rogers. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.