Sting


by Sandra Brown

Prologue

Exactly twenty-two minutes before Mickey Bolden met his maker, he tossed a handful of popcorn into his mouth and said, “A woman walks into a bar.”

Shaw Kinnard, hunched forward on the bar stool next to Mickey’s and, staring into his drink with every indication of boredom, gave the shot glass of tequila a couple of idle turns. “Yeah? And?”

“And nothing.”

“That’s the joke?”

“No joke, and not a damn thing about this is funny.”

As though he’d been popped with a rubber band, Shaw’s boredom vanished. His head snapped around to look at Mickey.

The man’s eyes were no larger than raisins and half shuttered by pillows of fat, but Shaw was able to follow their tracking movement from one side of the beer joint to the other. Tempted as he was to take a look for himself, he stayed on his partner’s bloated face. In dread of the answer, he asked, “Any woman in particular?”

“Particularly, our woman.”

“She’s here?”

“As I live and breathe.” Mickey dusted popcorn salt off his hands. “Currently at one o’clock over your right shoulder, claiming a stool where the bar crooks, so don’t turn around, ’cause she’s facing this way.”

Mickey’s grin suggested that the two of them were engaged in easy conversation, when, in fact, Jordie Bennett’s unexpected arrival came as a jolt.

“Well this sure as hell screws the pooch,” Shaw muttered. “She alone?”

“Came in that way.” One of Mickey’s puffy eyes closed in a wink. “But the night is young.” His smirk only made him uglier, if that was possible.

Shaw lowered his gaze back to his glass of Patrón Silver. “You think she’s made us?”

“Naw. How could she?”

“Then what the hell is she doing here?”

Mickey shrugged. “Maybe the lady’s thirsty.”

“She gets thirsty the day we hit town?”

“Stranger things have happened.”

“Strange things make me nervous.”

“’Cause you don’t have the experience I do,” Mickey said.

With unconcealed scorn, Shaw gave the other man a once-over, thinking that in this instance, experience amounted to a stupid and dangerous complacency. “I’m not exactly a rookie at this,” he said.

“Then you should know to keep your cool if the plan develops a kink.”

“A kink? This is a sheepshank.”

“Maybe. But until we know better, I’m gonna look at it as a wild coincidence and not jump to conclusions that are probably wrong. Shit happens. Best-laid plans get shot to hell. Sometimes you just gotta go with the flow and improvise.”

“Yeah? Well what if the flow floats you into an ocean of sewage?”

“Relax, bro,” Mickey drawled. “Everything’s okay. She’s giving the place a survey, casual like, not like she’s looking for anybody in particular. Her baby blues skipped right past me, didn’t light.”

Shaw snorted as he raised his glass to his mouth. “Because you’re butt ugly.”

“Hey, there’s plenty of ladies that like me.”

“If you say so.” Shaw tossed back the remainder of his tequila. As he returned the empty glass to the bar, he glanced toward the subject of their interest, who was presently thanking the bartender for the glass of white wine he was setting down in front of her.

She was his and Mickey’s reason for being here. Here being the boondocks of south central Louisiana. Not here, a local watering hole, built of rusty, corrugated metal, unstably situated on the muddy banks of a sluggish bayou. If the establishment had a name, Shaw didn’t know it. BAR was spelled out in red neon letters that hissed and crackled as they flashed above the door outside.

Inside, the place was smoky and reeking with the ripe odors of its rough, blue-collar clientele. Zydeco music blasted from the jukebox, which looked like it had ridden out twenty or so hurricanes that were dress rehearsals for Katrina.

He and Mickey blended reasonably well into the joint’s general seediness, but this wasn’t the kind of place one would expect to see Jordan Elaine Bennett, known to family and friends as Jordie. Yet here she was. Drinking white wine, for godsake. Like that didn’t make her conspicuous in a place where the beer was bottled and hard liquor was poured neat.

Mickey scooped another handful of popcorn from the plastic bowl and shoved it into his mouth. Talking around the charred kernels, he asked, “You’re thinking her being here is something besides coincidence?”

“Hell I know,” Shaw muttered. “Doesn’t feel right, is all.” He bobbed his head in thanks to the bartender, who wordlessly offered to pour him a refill of tequila then, with accurate presumption, uncapped another long neck for Mickey.

As he took a pull from the fresh bottle of beer, he squinted down the length of it toward the far end of the bar, where it formed an ell. He swallowed, belched lager fumes, said around the burp, “Could be she’s just cruising.”

Shaw cocked his eyebrow in doubt. “For a man, you mean?”

“Well, why not?”

“She’s not the type.”

Mickey chuckled and nudged Shaw’s arm with his elbow. “They’re all the type.”

“The voice of experience speaks again?”

Mickey gave a sage nod. “Hard to get? Total female bullshit, designed to make us work for it.”

Shaw considered Mickey’s editorial, then picked up his tequila and shot it. Decisively he set the empty glass on the bar and slid off the stool, making sure as he stood up that his shirttail covered the grip of the pistol holstered on his belt.

Mickey choked on his beer. “Where’re you—”

“To test your theory, fat man.”

“You can’t…she—”

Shaw left Mickey sputtering.

As he ambled along the row of bar stools, he was sized up by drinkers of both sexes. Women regarded him with either speculation or flat-out invitation. Disinterested, he didn’t engage, not even with a smile. Men gave him hard, cold, challenging stares, which he returned harder, colder, and more challenging. All looked away before he did.

Shaw had that way about him.

No one had yet worked up enough courage to occupy the vacant bar stool next to Jordie Bennett’s. Locals probably understood that she was off-limits to riffraff. In her opinion Shaw must’ve qualified as such because, as he got closer, he caught her eye, but briefly, before she directed the referred-to baby blues back down to her glass of wine. No change in facial expression, no shift in body language, not a flutter of a single long eyelash.