Death, Taxes, and Silver Spurs by Diane Kelly is the 7th romantic mystery in the Tara Holloway series featuring the IRS Special Agent (available July 29, 2014).
HE’S ONE OF AMERICA’S BRIGHTEST STARS.
So maybe it goes without saying that IRS Special Agent Tara Holloway is star-struck? She’s head over heels…in trouble.
Easy’s getting harder every day for Tara. A tax-evading pet groomer managed to buzz off a big chunk of her hair…just in time for her
date strictly-business meeting with country-music heartthrob Brazos Rivers. Of course Tara shouldn’t care—she’s devoted to Special Agent Nick Pratt, after all—but Rivers does know how to steal a woman’s heart with a song…
At two o’clock on a Saturday afternoon in early February I spent a full minute pulling forward and back, forward and back, trying to maneuver my plain white government sedan into a space at the curb. I could put a bullet into a bull’s-eye at three hundred yards, but I’d never mastered the art of parallel parking.
My partner cut his brown eyes my way. Eddie was tall, talented, and tough, a black father of two and a political conservative, more Clint Eastwood than Kanye West. Though he said nothing, his expression spoke for him. It said, Wow. You really suck at this.
I cut my gray-blue eyes back at him, hoping he’d read the reply contained therein, which was, Pffft.
“Close enough,” I muttered, turning off the engine. The car sat farther than the recommended six to eight inches from the curb, but if Dallas PD issued me a ticket I could pull rank and get it dismissed. Working for Uncle Sam definitely had some benefits.
We climbed out of the car, made our way up onto the sidewalk, and pulled open the glass door that led into Doggie Style. Nope, the place wasn’t a sex shop. It was a pet groomer. Get your mind out of the gutter. Or at least six to eight inches from the gutter.
An alarm on the door announced our arrival with a short, sharp beep.
The place was small and smelled like a rank yet refreshing mix of wet dog and oranges, probably from some type of citrus-based flea shampoo. A pegboard along the side wall displayed an assortment of bows, collars, barrettes, and other fashion accessories for pets. A bulletin board on the back wall featured snapshots of the groomer’s kitty and canine clientele in cute costumes, including a white poodle in a pink tutu and a brown tabby in army fatigues. A notation under the cat’s photo identified him as Chairman Meow.
Eddie eyed the photos. “Dressing up your pet? That’s just wrong.”
“I think it’s cute.”
An open door behind the service counter led to the groomer’s workspace. Through the door we could see an elevated table currently occupied by a golden-red chow. A nooselike apparatus hung from a pole, encircling his fluffy neck and immobilizing him. A big-boned woman with a blond ponytail circled the dog, examining him closely, occasionally reaching out with the clippers to perfect his lion cut. Bzz. Bzz. Something tiny, black, and furry peered up from a pillow in the corner, opening its mouth in a wide, pink yawn. Being adorable was exhausting.
“Be right there!” the woman barked without looking up.
Why was I here? Because I worked as a criminal investigator for the IRS and the groomer had not only shaved dogs and cats but had shaved well over a hundred thousand off her reported earnings as well. The audit department had issued an assessment, but Hilda Gottschalk had refused to pay up. On three separate occasions, an agent from the collections department had come by and seized the contents of the cash register, netting a mere two hundred dollars for his efforts. Not an efficient process, obviously.
Hilda still owed thirty grand and was making no attempts to settle her tax bill. The IRS had put a lien on her house and levied the small balance in her checking account, but it was clear the woman was hiding her cash somewhere, like a dog hiding a bone, secreting it to savor later.
When the collections department had no luck tracking down her hidden profits, they’d booted the case over to criminal investigations. That’s where I came in. I’m Special Agent Tara Holloway, a law enforcement agent for the IRS, a tax cop if you will. I had the same powers as the collections agents to seize assets, but I also had a gun, handcuffs, and the legal right to kick tax-evader ass. Often, when cases were escalated to criminal investigations, tax cheats finally realized their days of playing games were over. Many cooperated at that point. A few, however, chose to go down fighting.
I hoped Hilda wouldn’t be the latter type. I had front-row seats for a concert tonight and I’d prefer to save my energy for dancing to the tunes of my favorite country crossover star.
The mere thought of his name made me want to sigh and swoon and shine his belt buckle with my panties. Yep, I had it bad for the guy. A major celebrity crush that would put any tweener with Bieber fever to shame.
Hilda removed the noose from the dog’s head. With a grunt, she lifted the big beast from the table, set him on the floor, and led him to a large cage to await his owner’s return.
Clippers still in hand, she stepped into the foyer, her hazel eyes flicking to Eddie before meeting mine. “What can I do for you?”
Might as well cut to the chase. I needed the rest of the afternoon to primp and preen and wax my upper lip. “You can tell us where you’ve hidden your assets.”
Hilda frowned as she took in the badges Eddie and I held up. “Who the hell are you?”
“Special Agents Tara Holloway and Eddie Bardin,” I said. “We’re from IRS criminal investigations. Your case has been escalated.” Saying her case had been escalated was the polite way of letting her know she was in deep doo-doo.
She crossed her arms over her chest, flicking the clippers on and off with her thumb. Bzz. Bzz. “You can’t make me talk.”
Ugh. So that’s how she wanted to play this, huh?
I put a hand on my waist and pushed back my blazer, revealing the Glock holstered at my waist. Her eyes went to my gun and back to my face. The expression in them read, Fuck you and the horse you rode in on. Her eyes were very ill-mannered.
Eddie chimed in. “The government means business, Miss Gottschalk. Either you tell us where your assets are or you go to jail.”
She seemed to ponder his words for a moment, clicking the clippers on and off once more—bzz-bzz—before glancing back into the workroom. “I can’t leave these dogs here.”
Eddie cocked his head. “You won’t have to if you tell us where you’ve hidden your cash.”
Bzz. Bzz. She looked the two of us over as if sizing us up. She had a good six inches over my five-feet-two-inch frame and, with her stout build, likely weighed as much as Eddie. Still, there were two of us and only one of her. Neener-neener.
“All right,” she said finally. “I’ve got some cash in my safe in the back room.”
“Got anything else in that safe?” A gun, perhaps? I’d learned—the hard way—never to assume someone would be unarmed.
“That’s for me to know!” she called out in a snarky, singsong voice. “And you to find out!”
I rolled my eyes. What did she think this was, a third-grade playground spat?
Eddie and I followed her to the back room. I glanced around. The black puppy was curled up in a tiny ball on his pillow now, snoozing away. The floor in front of the porcelain tub glistened with water droplets, having yet to dry after the chow had taken his bath. Clumps of reddish-gold dog hair lay on the floor around the grooming table.
Hilda led us to a small storage closet in the corner and pointed at the door. “The safe is in there.”
“I’ll open it,” Eddie said.
That meant I’d be standing guard, making sure Hilda didn’t pull a fast one. You might think it would’ve been better to have Eddie on guard, but you’d be wrong, even if you are one of those geniuses who knows how to parallel park. Eddie was bigger and stronger than me, sure, but he didn’t have my quick-draw gun skills. They didn’t call me the Annie Oakley of the IRS for nothing. I put a hand on the butt of my gun, ready for action.
Eddie opened the door to the closet. A stack of white towels sat on the top shelf, bottles of pet shampoo on the next one down. On the floor was a mop bucket. That was it. No safe in sight.
Eddie hadn’t gotten his words out before Hilda lunged toward the back exit door.
Oh, hell, no.
This woman is not getting away.
I sprang toward her and grabbed her thick arm. She flung me aside with little effort. All those years of lifting dogs had given her some solid arm muscles.
“Crap!” I slipped on the wet floor and landed on my butt, my head banging back against the tub. Damn, that hurt! My brain rattled, I sat helpless for a moment as I tried to gather my wits. Unfortunately, my wits were all over the place, like a litter of lively puppies. Before they could be fully corralled, Eddie blocked Hilda’s escape route and she decided to seize the moment and come at me with the clippers.
The clippers buzzed like a ferocious swarm of hornets around my head. Bzzzzz! Bzzzzz! Before I could slap Hilda’s hands away, a harsh tug began at my forehead and ended at the crown of my head. A four-inch strip of my chestnut hair fell into my lap.
“Stop that!” I yelled, leveraging my back against the tub and kicking out at her with my steel-toed shoes.
I landed two solid kicks to her meaty calf but my actions didn’t scare her off. They only seemed to make her madder. She came at me again, her face red and blotchy with anger and adrenaline.
With a primal cry, Eddie grabbed the woman from behind and pulled her away from me, shoving her up against the wall. But it was too late. My hair was now styled in a reverse Mohawk.
I reached up to touch the bald landing strip on my head, igniting in an instant fury. How dare this woman ruin my two-hundred-dollar cut and color! Especially when I’d be meeting Brazos Rivers in person tonight.
My body launched from the floor like a bitch-seeking missile, hurtling toward its target. I body-slammed the woman from behind, smashing her face and torso against the wall. The clippers fell from her hand with a thunk.
On instinct, I yanked my gun from my holster only to shove it back in when I had second thoughts. I’d just recently got back my job with the IRS after being fired for shooting a target four times in the leg. Long story, but suffice it to say the bastard deserved every one of those bullets and then some. Still, I knew that using my gun now would get me in even deeper doo-doo than Hilda Gottschalk. I’d have to even the score some other way. Hmm …
An eye for an eye.
A tooth for a tooth.
A hair for a hair.
What a Tangled Hair We Weave
I grabbed the trimmer from the floor and flipped the switch. Bzzzzz.
Eddie slapped cuffs on Hilda, who yapped a string of repetitive and ineffectual threats like an overzealous lapdog. “Screw you! Screw you! Screw you!”
Too bad we couldn’t muzzle her.
“Hold her still,” I ordered.
Eddie eyed the device in my hand, looked into my eyes, and shrugged. “Have at her.”
God love ’im.
I set to work. By the time I was done with Hilda, her blond ponytail lay on the floor and her bangs were history, shaved back to the hairline at the top of her forehead.
That’d teach her to mess with Tara Holloway.
* * *
Once Hilda had been hauled off to jail and the owners of the chow and black peekapoo had picked up their pets, Eddie and I returned to my G-ride. I took one look at my hair in the rearview mirror, gasped when it looked even worse than I had imagined, and fought the urge to dial 911. If my hair disaster didn’t constitute an emergency I didn’t know what did. Still, I doubted Dallas PD had a stylist on staff. I settled for returning to the groomer’s shop and grabbing a red plastic barrette from the display. Sweeping one side of my hair over the top of my head, I clipped it in place on the other side with the barrette. The Mohawk was now replaced with a comb-over. Lovely.
I dropped Eddie back at the office so he could retrieve his car, and drove to my usual salon. I took one step in the door and removed the barrette. My hair flopped back into place, revealing the hairless stripe down the center of my skull.
My hairdresser, Amber, turned my way and shrieked. “Oh, my God!”
After I ran through the events at Doggie Style, Amber shook her head. “This could only happen to you.”
“I know, right?” Something about me brought out the inner nut job in people.
Luckily, Amber had had a last-minute cancellation and was able to squeeze me in for a weave. I emerged an hour later with my bald spot strategically covered and made a stop by the pharmacy for the biotin she’d recommended for fast hair growth.
* * *
My boyfriend, Nick, arrived at six-thirty to pick me up for the concert. Nick was a fellow special agent, though he’d been with the IRS long enough to achieve senior status. I was still a relative rookie, having yet to put a full year under my belt.
Nick stood a manly six-two, with rock-hard pecs and broad shoulders a girl could lean on, cry on, and bite into. Trust me. I’d done all three. His dark hair was currently cut in a short, businesslike style. He wore a western shirt, jeans, and boots, standard Nick off-duty attire. The white felt cowboy hat I’d given him sat on his head, tilted back enough to reveal those whiskey-colored eyes that never failed to drink me in.
Those eyes went straight to my head. “Get your hair done?”
“In a manner of speaking.” I gave him the rundown.
When I finished, he groaned but grinned at the same time. Nick found my escapades amusing. Sometimes I think he stuck with me for the entertainment value. “It never ends with you, does it?”
He stepped close and gave me a soft, warm kiss that sent a tingle from the tips of my toes up to my shaved scalp. When he released me, his gaze backtracked down my body, taking in my fitted red sweater dress and hand-painted boots, sexy Southern chic. “Look at you, all prettied up.”
He dipped his head in acknowldgement and appreciation, apparently assuming I’d gotten myself all gussied up for him. Truth be told, I’d wanted to look good for Brazos. The star hadn’t paid taxes—ever—but surely it was an accidental oversight, right? Heck, with all the money Brazos Rivers and the Boys of the Bayou raked in, he’d probably write me a check on the spot tonight. Case closed.
I grabbed my cute knit shawl and we drove in Nick’s pickup to a Mexican restaurant not far from the American Airlines Center. We sat on opposite sides of a small booth and shared a platter of loaded nachos. I sipped a frozen margarita while Nick nursed a Shiner bock.
The alcohol did nothing to numb my senses. I felt giddy with anticipation, virtually bouncing on the springy seat of the booth. “I can hardly wait to meet Brazos Rivers!”
Nick chuffed. “You won’t. You’ll be meeting Winthrop Merriweather the seventh.”
Obviously, the name Winthrop lacked sex appeal, and his last name sounded like it belonged on a set of bedsheets or one of the good fairies from Sleeping Beauty. The singer, like many celebrities, had chosen a fitting pseudonym, naming himself after the longest river in Texas. The Spanish called the river Río de los Brazos de Dios, which translates as the River of the Arms of God. The Brazos flowed from a headwater in New Mexico all the way through the Lone Star State to the Gulf of Mexico. The waterway was featured in John Graves’s classic book Goodbye to a River, as well as James Michener’s Texas and even in a book by Cormac McCarthy. The river was also mentioned in songs by Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt, and Bruce Springsteen. Both the river, and the singer who’d named himself after it, had made quite a splash.
Brazos had clearly taken pains to ensure the general public had no idea that his real name was Winthrop. As an IRS employee, I was privy to this bit of secret information. The tax records showed that Brazos Rivers was an assumed name for a business operated by Winthrop Merriweather VII. He’d filed for an employer identification number to be assigned to his professional alias, Brazos Rivers, so that he wouldn’t have to use his real name and personal Social Security number for business purposes. Standard procedure for individuals running a business.
Truth be told, it was titillating to know I had an inside scoop on the star that few others had. Brazos had also been quiet about his childhood and vocal training, evading reporters’ nosy questions, leaving his background a mystery. He’d popped onto the country music scene several years ago as if materializing out of nowhere.
“Who cares what his real name is,” I replied to Nick. After all, a rose by any other name … right? “He’s incredibly talented.”
The fact that Nick responded with only a draw on his beer told me he didn’t agree. I was nothing if not stubborn, though. I’d make Nick see the light.
“People magazine called Brazos a modern-day poet.” They’d also named him the sexiest man alive last year. But no sense mentioning that, right? Besides, Nick was damn sexy himself. I mean, if I had to choose between the two … I’d take them both. Maybe even at the same time. Hee-hee!
“Brazos Rivers a poet?” Nick raised a dark, skeptical brow. “‘Baby, if you’re willing, let’s do some horizontal drilling?’ You call that poetry?”
“Not that particular song,” I said in my defense, fishing among the nachos for one with extra guacamole. “I was referring to the one that goes ‘you left without saying good-bye, your love was an illusion, your love was a lie, it’s enough to make a cowboy cry.’”
“It’s enough to make a cowboy puke.” Nick removed his hat and pretended to urp into it before placing it back on his head.
Nick was entitled to his opinion, but if he wanted this debate to end he should’ve kept his thoughts to himself. After all, I kept my mouth shut when he extolled the virtues of the Dallas Cowboys, several of whom had landed themselves in jail in recent years for one offense or another.
“All three of Brazos Rivers’s albums have gone platinum,” I pointed out. Can’t argue with a fact like that, right? “He’s a huge crossover star. Like Taylor Swift.”
“There’s nothing swift about Brazos Rivers. The guy’s an overrated, oversexed man-whore who can play a little guitar, that’s all.”
I bristled at Nick’s comment. Okay, so Brazos Rivers was rumored to have a girl or two in every port, maybe even three or four. Who could blame him? He was young, hot, and single. He’d also been a centerfold in Stud Farm, a short-lived publication intended to compete with Playgirl. The spread showed the star floating in a river on an inner tube wearing nothing but his trademark leather boots and silver spurs, his straw cowboy hat covering his crotch, a naughty grin on his oh-so-kissable lips.
While the other men featured in the magazine had been shown full frontal, Brazos offered only his waxed chest, his six-pack abs, and some upper thigh. When female stars posed for boudoir photos but didn’t want to do full nudity, they’d at least show their fans some side boob. Too bad Brazos hadn’t followed suit, done a profile pic, maybe reveal a little side ball.
Despite the fact that the photo spread had left me wanting, I had a dog-eared copy of the magazine hidden in my purse right now. But who could blame me? Brazos had sex appeal out the wazoo.
Besides, Nick saying that Brazos wasn’t swift was just plain wrong. The guy was a marketing genius. He and his music were featured in a commercial for a pickup truck. He endorsed everything from electric razors to toothpaste. He’d launched his own line of guitars and barbecue grills, even a men’s fragrance called Whitewater. The guy was drenched in the sweet smell of success.
But no sense arguing with Nick. I knew I was right even if he didn’t. I sipped my margarita, said nothing, and pitied his ignorance.
Nick seemed to realize he’d taken things too far and reached a hand across the table, chucking me gently and affectionately on the chin. “Sorry. I shouldn’t poke fun at the guy. After all, you never put down Carrie Underwood.”
My eyes narrowed. “You have a crush on Carrie Underwood?”
“Oops.” Nick offered an expression that was half grin, half cringe. (A gringe?) “Did I forget to tell you about that?”
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Diane Kelly is a former CPA and tax attorney, who had several brushes with white-collar criminals during her career. When she realized her experiences made excellent fodder for novels, her fingers hit the keyboard and thus began her Special Agent Tara Holloway romantic mystery series. A recipient of the 2009 Romance Writers of America Golden Heart Award for Best Novel with Strong Romantic Elements, she has received more than two dozen RWA chapter awards.