Read Christmas Angel Online

Authors: Amanda McIntyre

Christmas Angel





Christmas Angel

Tales of the Sweet Magnolia, Book II




Amanda McIntyre







Chapter One


Present Day


It was a hell of a way to spend a winter’s night. Shado tore open the instant heat packets and stuffed them inside the palms of his gloves. Though the gloves were fingerless for easy access to his gun, the warmth in his palm aided the chill beginning to cramp his hands.

“How’s it lookin’ out there?” Detective Jack Gleason, his partner in the operation, sat huddled, warm and toasty, with the rest of the surveillance crew in a van parked halfway down the block—ready to roll at Shado’s signal.

They at least had hot coffee.

He took a gulp of stale, cold coffee, grimacing as he tossed it in a rusty oil barrel nearby. For a fleeting moment, the thought of a nice can fire passed through his head—quickly dissipating as he glanced at the stacks of Christmas trees surrounding him.

“This was your idea, wasn’t it, Gleason?” he muttered into the microphone discreetly attached to the silver diamond stud he wore on his left earlobe. It wasn’t his style—the earring—but the captain thought it would add character to his cover. “And tell me again why I’m out here freezing my holiday balls, instead of you?”

There was a low chuckle over the receiver. “Seniority? And hell yeah, this was my brilliant idea. From your vantage, you have a straight shot at who is coming and going.”

Shado sneezed, wondering how long it would take his toes to thaw once he got home…if he got home before dawn. “What’s the temp, again?” He smacked his hands together and reminded himself to hunt down his wool socks. The thought of standing outside night after night with Jack Frost nipping at his…well, it wasn’t adding to his holiday cheer, not that he was exactly known for his jolly disposition.

“Supposed to be a record low. Might beat the old one of twelve below zero.”

“Nice,” he responded with dull enthusiasm. At least it wasn’t snowing…yet. He eyed the sky. In the city, the stars weren’t discernible with all the neon signage. He noticed his breath and a shiver ran through him. Guilt, like a heavy weight, slipped through the silence and reminded him it’d been weeks since he’d spoken to his sister-in-law. The holidays were bad enough for him, but the thought of his brother’s absence about did him in. He’d made a vow to watch over them after his brother’s death, but time had slipped away, and it was all Shado could do to deal with his own grief.

“Yeah, well it’s a good night to snuggle up to with something warm, right? That’s what we’re counting on, anyway. Let’s hope our boy shows up and wants to visit one of his favorite ladies.”

Shado pushed thoughts of his widowed sister-in-law from his mind. He stretched his arms over his head. “I’m going back in the shack for a few minutes and warm up. Let me know if you see anything.”

“Crack a window in there. Space heaters can be dangerous.”

“Right.” Shado tossed a tolerant glance at the van and tugged open the rickety wood door. The shack, barely the size of an outhouse, held a small kitchen stool, space heater, and a crude wooden ledge with a metal money box. The department had paid the owner of the now-closed gas station to have access to the lot after hours. They then set up the tree lot in order to maintain twenty-four hour surveillance on the hotel known for its elite gentlemen’s escort service. While the service, too, was a concern, it was secondary to catching a man by the name of Espinoza, head of a prominent East Side drug ring, and someone with whom Shado had an intimate score to settle.

“You guys hear about the Billy Joel musical that opened tonight?” One of the surveillance crew’s voices filtered through the mike.

Shado pulled off his gloves and tried to stuff the heat packs in the sides of his work boots. He ignored their chatter drifting from the musical, to what to put in the kids’ stockings, and who they were taking to the annual Policeman’s Christmas Ball. He didn’t care for Joel’s music, he didn’t have kids, nor had he attended the party in years—hell, he hadn’t even
about the holiday in years. And dating? He’d discovered most women didn’t take kindly to the life of a cynical undercover cop with insane hours and no guarantee of reaching retirement. Go figure. He’d always been a loner of sorts, and his brother’s death intensified the need to avoid attachments, firming his resolve.

“It’s supposed to be pretty good. My wife has been at me to take her. Maybe that’s what I’ll do for Christmas this year.” Gleason sounded thrilled he’d solved his own dilemma. “How about you, Shado? What are your plans?” His voice crackled through the transmitter.

“Plans?” Shado scoffed at his old friend. “Probably sitting in this godforsaken toothpick hut.”

“Dammit, man. You make the Grinch sound like Mother Teresa.”

Shado released a sigh.
Fair enough
. “Hey, get off my ass. Just because you go around from October to December like some overgrown Texas elf…,” he shot back at his partner. The big man could dish it out as well as take it. It was his way—had been from the first day Shado met him. Jack was an old school cop, a true hero and believer in right and wrong. He had come to Reno after meeting the woman destined to put up with him for close to twenty-some years.

No kids, Jack considered rookie cops his children. Though Shado’s place on the undercover team was largely due to the influence of his brother Danny, a three-year veteran on the force, Jack still took him under his wing, carefully teaching him the ropes. If it hadn’t been for the Texan, he wouldn’t have made it back on the force after Danny’s death, and in all probability, would be sitting in a psych unit blaming himself, instead of freezing his ass off waiting for the drug cartel’s elusive leader. Shado peered through the grimy windows, wiping away the dirt so he could see more clearly. He’d been waiting a long time for the man who murdered his brother to surface again.

Gleason chuckled. “Hey now, you don’t want to mess with Texas, son,” he kicked in with his good ol’ boy drawl.

“No more than you want to mess with the Grinch,” Shado muttered, wondering whether he could talk his superior into letting him stay through the next shift. He didn’t want to lose the opportunity to bust Espinoza’s head wide open. “Who’s on deck?”

“Rooney. He’s supposed to be here at midnight. You okay?”

“Yeah. Listen, I’m going behind the station. Keep an eye on things.” He stepped from the shack and slipped on his gloves, awaiting one of Gleason’s smart-ass comebacks. When none followed, the hair on the back of Shado’s neck stood on end. He tapped his earring stud and squinted through the shadows at the van. “Gleason, you copy?”

Raucous laughter burst through the earpiece.

“What the hell—” He yanked at his ear.

“Sorry, bro, we were taking bets on how many trees Mr. Grinch was going to take a whiz on.”

“You’re a sick, sorry bunch of bastards.” Shado flipped them the finger and turned on his heel, striding toward the abandoned gas station. Several cars went by in rapid succession. The thumping bass of a pimped out stereo echoed down the otherwise still street. The area, a victim of urban decay, housed a number of vacant warehouses and old office buildings. One of the few thriving businesses in the radius of three blocks was the Imperial.

“It must be the traffic from the musical. It’s letting out about now. Make it quick, man. Things could get interesting.”

Shado peeked around the corner of the building and blew out a breath as he zipped his jeans. He’d better see some action soon or he was going to go nuts. He backtracked through the narrow path of angled trees. The scent of pine, mixed with the frosty night air, produced a flash memory of him and his brother sneaking out at night to sled down the elementary school’s hill. They’d scoffed at the risks they took, speeding down the snow-covered slope, blinded by the dark, laughing hysterically as they trudged wearily back home and snuck in the house before their parents noticed they were gone. God, there were times when he could almost feel Danny’s presence, and the pain of his absence cut like a knife in his heart.

Shado shook his head and refocused on the present. He scanned the grand circular drive and assessed the four-story splendor that was now the Imperial. He’d done some research on the old place, which stood out like a sore thumb amid the giant, black-eyed, empty structures made of brick and steel, quietly touting its ability to survive come what may. Over the years, it had taken on many owners, but its rich and tainted roots stretched back to the gunslinger days of the Western mining boom. In its original location, it had served as a saloon and brothel in Deadwater Gulch, one of many in a cluster of temporary mining towns that once dotted the hills around Virginia City. Most of the towns had dried up and disappeared quickly with the discovery of gold farther west. Its owners back then, seeing greater profit for a hotel with the expansion of the new railroad, decided to move the business to Reno. Much of the brothel’s ornate furnishings and gingerbread architecture had been salvaged and used to build the new place, which included two additional floors. It was not until the building had been nearly brought to ruin some years later that a San Francisco businessman by the name of Charlie Lee bought it. He moved his budding business to the Magnolia’s Reno location, renaming her the Imperial
For years, it stood as one of Reno’s premiere escort services, yet in recent times, it had attracted the attention of shady clientele seeking asylum behind the façade of wealth—a wealth acquired by questionable means.

A few of the stained glass windows and some gold-framed paintings of the brothel residents had found their way to area libraries, antique stores, and into the hands of private collectors. Most of the furnishings, however—the piano, chandeliers, polished mahogany bar, and tufted horsehide couches—still graced the red-carpeted parlor of the Imperial, giving a glimpse into its gloriously wicked past. Rumor had it one of Madam’s special rooms was a haven of antique artifacts. Available for an exorbitant fee to those who wished to experience the raw beauty of the Old West, the Imperial guaranteed the fantasy with a room complete with an antique wrought iron bed covered with satin sheets and modeled after the style of the Magnolia’s most noted madam, Miss Lillian. It also had a silk dressing screen and a large washtub—made for two—placed in front of the crackling fireplace. Though he’d never seen it personally, he couldn’t help but wonder what it might be like to spend a night there with the right woman.

Shoving his libido aside, he eyed the grand dame perched high on the hill and highlighted by the floodlit circle drive Madam felt necessary for the convenience of her clients arriving to pick up their “dates.” Madame Lee’s business had a reputation, not all of it socially acceptable in the eyes of the law. However, she was more than willing to cooperate with authorities in this sting operation. As of late, Espinoza had been using the Imperial as his private drop for deals. When a couple of her girls disappeared with some of his more unsavory clients, Madam Lee was quick to cut a deal with the police in order to get him out from under her roof. In the last couple of weeks, she’d even sent thermoses of coffee and homemade cookies out to the undercover guys.

“Keep sharp. This prick will do whatever he wants and doesn’t care how he does it.”

“You don’t need to remind me, Jack.”

“I know, man. He’ll get his, I promise.” His tone was apologetic.

“Yeah.” Shado couldn’t allow what happened to Danny linger in his brain. He needed to be alert, focused, if he planned to catch the son-of-a-bitch. “What’s the latest word on Espinoza?” he asked, redirecting the line of the conversation.

“Captain says he’s desperate—reportedly paid some of Madam Lee’s girls to score new clients, offering them a kickback. Word is he’s started outsourcing fresh faces from out of town to put down his scores. Problem is, they seem to disappear right after the deal goes down.”

Shado’s teeth ground in frustration. This asshole, if he ever got hold of him, was fish food. How many others would die at his hand before they could bring him down?




Sweet Magnolia 1881


Angel didn’t care what the citizens of Deadwater thought about her or the other girls at the Sweet Magnolia. Lately though, she’d become restless, needing a sense of purpose, wanting what other women had—what Miss Lillian had with Sheriff Jake.

“Here’s the last load.” Josie plopped another laundry basket on the dry, broken ground. Not much grass grew around the stately clapboard farmhouse-turned bordello.

“Thanks, Josie.”

The young girl—at least two years younger than Angel—nodded, offering a bright smile, its effect revealing more innocence on her face than the years of her experience. She wiped her brow with the back of her hand. “I’ll fix us something cold to drink.”

“Sounds lovely.” Angel looked up at the endless span of bright blue autumn sky. Her thoughts drifted to the woman who’d become her friend, the woman who’d changed her perspective on life. How she missed Miss Lillian.

Two years had passed since her disappearance, and shortly thereafter, so, too, had Sheriff Jake Sloan disappeared. He’d been searching for his Lil, and everyone assumed he’d been robbed and left for dead by renegade bandits or killed by the warrior Indians who roamed the hills. He’d not been the same since she disappeared without a trace, and townsfolk generally knew it best to stay clear of him. Angel had spoken to him only once as she finished her errands one evening. He’d sat on the porch of the jailhouse, his chair tipped against the wall. In his hand, he held a necklace. It had a red stone that seemed to wink as it twisted and turned with the motion of the chain. She recognized it as one Miss Lillian used to wear. He didn’t look up, and she approached him slowly, watching his face. Some said he wasn’t in his right mind. His dark eyes focused intently on the necklace, as though willing the gem to speak to him. A shiver skated down Angel’s spine. She’d never seen a man so utterly lost.

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