It took Carlos Sandoval a few seconds to place the voice on the other end of the phone. “Tiffany?”
“Yeah, it’s me,” she replied. “How are you?”
“I’m fine,” Carlos said, then paused as a dozen questions ran through his mind. Where are you? What are you doing? Where have you been? Why haven’t you called? “How are you doing?”
“I’m…okay,” Tiffany paused. “Look, I know that I didn’t say goodbye,…I’m sorry.”
Carlos sat back in his chair and waited for her to finish. After she was silent for a few moments, he spoke. “It’s all right Tiff…I understand. You needed to get away for awhile.”
“Can you come over to my house?” she asked in a quiet voice. “I need to talk to you.”
Carlos stared at the phone. “Uh, yeah…sure.” He looked at his watch. “I can be there in a half hour…that okay?”
“That will be fine. You know where I live?”
“Okay…see you then,” she said, then hung up.
Carlos sat in his car and stared at the house. This is silly he thought. Then why don’t you get out of the car, and see what she wants?? Carlos sighed as he got out and walked to the house.
Detective Tiffany Roxanne Chambers had been his temporary partner when his regular partner had ended up in the hospital after falling out a second story window. They worked together to bring down a major car theft ring…one masterminded by the same man who had killed Tiffany’s relatives 12 years before. Tiffany had been shot during the takedown. Carlos had gone to visit her in the hospital later, only to find that she had checked herself out, and disappeared. He received a letter from her a few days later, explaining that she had to leave in order to sort a few things out. That had been three months ago, and this was the first Carlos had heard from he since then.
Carlos paused before knocking on the door. Come on Carlos…it’s not like she owes you an explanation…she was only your partner. He exhaled, and knocked.
The door opened slowly, and a set of eyes that never ceased to take Carlos’ breath away, peered out at him.
“Hi,” Carlos said, and walked in as she moved to the side. “Nice place,” he commented as he looked around.
Tiffany smiled at him. “Thanks.” She looked at the floor. “And thanks for coming…I didn’t think you would.”
“Why?” Carlos approached her. “Are you okay?”
“I don’t know,” she sighed. “I’m back at work, and the first case they’ve given me is going to get me into trouble.”
Carlos stared momentarily. “Is that why you wanted to see me?? A case??” He frowned and crossed his arms. “That really hurts, ya know?”
Tiffany blinked a few times. “I didn’t mean for it to sound like that. No, I wanted to see you for you!” She stared at him angrily. “Look, if you think that, then you can just go! Sorry to have wasted your time!” She opened the door and motioned for him to leave.
Carlos reached out and shut the door. “I think I’ll stay.”
“Suit yourself,” Tiffany snorted.
“Damn it, lady! You haven’t changed one bit!” Carlos turned and leaned against the door. “Still a stubborn…”
Tiffany whirled to face him. “You say jackass, and I’ll throw you out the window.”
Carlos smiled slightly at the threat. “Actually, I was going to say Chiquita… but jackass has a nicer ring to it.” He stood and walked to her. “Come on, we could argue all night, or you can tell me what’s wrong.” Tiffany looked at him. “Start with why you left three months ago.”
“I laid there in that hospital bed, and I started to get scared.” Tiffany took a sip from her coffee, and leaned forward on the couch. “I knew that I couldn’t go back to police work then…I might have gotten somebody killed. So, I checked myself out, and went to my cousin’s place in Miami. I’m so sorry that I never called you, but I had to distance myself from my life here.”
Carlos smiled at her. “It’s okay. I understood that from your letter…which I greatly appreciate getting…You could have talked to me about it…I mean, we were partners.”
“I’m sorry…my mind wasn’t really functioning properly then.” She sighed raggedly. “I mean, that…man killed my Aunt and Uncle, and I killed him.”
“You had no choice.”
“There’s always a choice, Carlos!! I could have winged him…tried to bring him in…I shot a man in cold blood.”
“I was there, remember?” Carlos said calmly. “I saw what happened.”
Tiffany looked at him. “I aimed for his heart.”
“That’s not how I remember it,” Carlos said. “And that is not the way it happened…I know that, and you know that.”
“I…I.” Tiffany stood. “I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”
“Okay,” Carlos said and watched as she walked towards the window. “Tell me why you wanted to see me.”
Carlos whistled as he looked over the files Tiffany had. “This is serious stuff. Have you shown these to anyone else?”
“Just my partner, and the Captain.” Tiffany passed him another file. “I showed this one today, and on my way home someone ran me off the road.”
Carlos stared at her. “Why didn’t you tell me that?”
“No big deal,” Tiffany shrugged.
“There you go again, being stubborn.”
“You call me stubborn one more time, and I’m going to smack you!” Tiffany warned. “I don’t know what to do…these files reek of police and government corruption. I can’t trust anyone.”
“Then why show them to me?”
“You are about the most honest person that I know,” Tiffany said. “I know that if anything happens to me, then you would…see to it that…”
Carlos stopped her. “Don’t talk like that. Do you want me to call Walker?”
“He’s a Texas Ranger,” Carlos said, “and very honest…he hates corruption.”
“No!” Tiffany stood. “The less people who know about this, the better.”
“Walker is trustworthy.”
“I don’t know.” She started to pace. “I don’t want to put anyone else in danger.” She stopped and looked at him. “I’ve put you in danger! You better leave.”
Carlos stood. “What? And forget about what I’ve read? I can’t.”
“You have to! For your own safety! Please!!” Tiffany pleaded, then glared at him. “Get out! Go!!”
“Tiff,” Carlos said as he approached her. “Come on…think about this. If the right people know about this, then you are safe.”
Tiffany pointed to the door. “Go!”
“Damn it, Carlos! Why can’t you just do what I ask for once?!”
Carlos didn’t know what to do to calm her down, so he did what he thought he should do. He leaned down, and kissed her.
Tiffany’s eyes grew wide, and she punched him in the chest.
“Ow!” Carlos said as he stepped back. “Sorry.” He rubbed his chest. “For someone who hates violence, you sure can hit.”
“You…you…” Tiffany sputtered angrily, then stepped forward, grabbed him, and kissed him back. Carlos’ eyes grew wide, then he put his arms around her. He picked her up, and while still kissing her, carried her over to the couch. He sat down carefully, and leaned over so that he was on top of her.
What had started out as a simple plan to calm her down had quickly turned into something more serious, and Carlos could not pull himself away from her lips. He ran his hand along her leg and kissed her harder when he felt a hand on his.
Tiffany pulled back and looked at him. “You’re not doing this just to make me fell better, are you?”
“At first,” Carlos admitted. “But now? No way.” He bent down and kissed her again. He sighed to himself as his hand moved up her leg. He could taste the strawberry flavor of her lip-gloss, and thought that it was the best thing that he had ever tasted. A sound from his pager pulled him from his fantasy, and he reached down, took it off his belt, and bought up to eye level.
“Damn,” he said against her lips as he read the message. “Can I use your phone?” Tiffany nodded, and Carlos reached over her head, grabbed the phone, and dialed. He looked down at her body, still under him. “I’m not too heavy, am I?”
“Not at all,” Tiffany whispered. She put a hand on his behind, and giggled when he jumped.
“Don’t do that!” Carlos whispered. He turned his attention to the phone when someone answered. “Uh…Sandoval……Now?” He looked down as Tiffany started to kiss his neck. “As a matter of fact, I am rather busy at the moment…Can it wait?” He sighed at the answer. “Fine…I’ll be there.” He hung up and looked down. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Tiffany said. “Might have saved us from a mistake.”
Carlos sat up and frowned at her. “No mistake. I’ve…I think I’ve wanted you since I saw you. I just have a rule never to date my partners.”
“I bet Mike was relieved over that.”
Carlos laughed. “That’s mean.” He kissed her again. “I have to go…you going to be okay?”
Tiffany nodded. “I’ll be fine. Are you going to come back later?”
“Do you want me to?”
Carlos smiled. “Then I’ll be back.” He kissed her again. “I really have to go.”
Carlos looked down the street as he drove back to Tiffany’s house, and frowned at the police lights he saw. He parked, got out and approached.
“What’s going on?” he asked when a uniformed officer stopped him.
The officer looked at him. "Carlos?!" He glanced around, making sure no one was in hearing distance. “We got a 911 about thirty minutes ago…gunshots in the house.”
Carlos could feel his knees go weak. “In that house?!” He pointed, and took off when the officer nodded. He pushed past the officer at the door, and looked around wildly.
A man in a cowboy hat approached. “Carlos? What are you doing here?”
Carlos looked at him. “Trivette! What’s going on? Where’s Tiffany??”
Ranger James Trivette raised an eyebrow in surprise. “You know the…victim?”
“Victim?!” Carlos yelled. “No!!” He put a hand on his forehead and closed his eyes. “Where is she??!”
Trivette put a hand on his arm. “You better sit down…you don’t look good.”
Carlos sat down in a chair and stared numbly at the couch. Less then three hours before they had been in each other’s arms…then he got called away to make a police statement that 'just could not wait'. And now?…
He blinked as a person crouched in front of him, and a face came into view.
“Walker!” Carlos stood. “Where is she?!”
“Do you know Detective Chambers?” Ranger Cordell Walker asked.
“Where is she?” Carlos demanded.
Walker motioned to a room behind him. “In there…It’s not pretty.”
Carlos walked past him, and entered the room. He stopped, nearly sick at the sight that greeted him. Blood covered most of the kitchen floor, and a body lay in the middle of it, covered by a coroner’s tarp. Against his better judgement, Carlos went to the body and lifted the tarp up. He stared at the three bullet holes in the chest, then slowly looked at the face.
“Who the hell is this?” he asked Walker.
“Detective Chambers,” Walker said.
Carlos looked at him. “It’s not her.” He put the tarp back down, guilty at feeling so elated that the body was not Tiffany.
Walker approached. “Are you positive?”
“Positive,” Carlos said.
“How do you know?”
Carlos turned away from the body. “Talk to you in private?” He waited until the room cleared. “I know it’s not her, because I was…” He stopped and cleared his throat. “I was suppose to be here…with Tiffany…but I got called down to make a statement…”
Walker looked at him, compassion hidden behind professionalism. “Then, if that’s not her…who is it? And where is Detective Chambers?”
Carlos sighed as he was asked the same question for the fourth time. “I left her house at about 9:30 last night…Why are you grilling me over this? Am I a suspect?”
“No,” Walker answered. “We just want to make sure of all the facts. I have to know all the events that led up to this.”
“Did you see the files?”
Carlos sat up straight in his chair. “Tiffany was investigating something…corruption in the force, and the government.”
Walker and Trivette exchanged looks. “There were no files at the house,” Trivette said.
“I saw them,” Carlos insisted. “Something between the force, government, and the Mafia.”
“Do you remember what was in them?” Trivette asked. “The main points?”
Carlos tried to think, but his mind drifted back to the expression on Tiffany’s face when he had last seen her. Full of hope…promise…and… ”I think…I’m not sure.” He glared when Trivette sighed. “Look, I can’t think at the moment, okay?!”
“Calm down, Carlos,” Walker said.
Carlos turned his glare to him. “I am not going to calm down! Damn it!!!! I knew she was scared, but I left her alone anyway!” he yelled, his voice barely hiding the anguish and guilt he felt. “Tiffany might be dead, and…” He stopped. “I’m sorry…I don’t know why I’m yelling at you two over this.”
“It’s all right, Carlos,” Walker said. “Go home, get some sleep, and we’ll finish this tomorrow.”
Trent Malloy looked at his partner with worry. “Hey, you all right?”
Carlos sighed. “No.”
“Why don’t you take a few days off?” Trent asked. “You look like you could use it.”
“I have to keep busy,” Carlos said. “I can’t get the image of her out of my mind.” He turned to Trent. “Am I crazy to be acting like this?”
Trent smiled kindly and leaned over his desk. “Not at all. I knew that you liked her when you two stopped in at 'Thunder Karate' for that Tournament. It’s just taken it this long to get through your thick skull.”
Carlos blinked. “You knew? Why didn’t I know then??”
Trent shrugged. “Like I said, you got a thick head…and you don’t know a good thing when it’s right in front of you.” He paused. “Why do you think it hurt you so much when she just disappeared like that the last time?” He nodded when Carlos turned away. “Because you liked her…more than a partner.”
"Sometimes you make sense.”
Trent smiled. "That, I do." He stood. "Come on, we have work to do. Tiffany's sister-in-law has hired us to find her."
Carlos stood quickly. "She did? Good. I hated having to promise Walker that I wouldn't try to find her on my own." He stopped. “Why did you tell me to take a few days off when you knew about this?”
“It was just a suggestion,” Trent said, “cause you look like you need it.”
“You are a very strange person, amigo,” Carlos said.
“You’re calling me strange?” He laughed. “Carlos, you wrote the book on strange behavior.”
Trent Malloy grabbed the phone one it’s fourth ring. “Thunder Academy.”
“Trent?” A weak voice asked.
Trent paused, stunned. “Tiffany? Where—“
“I need help,” Tiffany said in a scared voice. “I…Carlos isn’t home.”
“Where are you?” Trent asked, trying to fight the anger he felt toward whoever had done this to Tiffany. “I’ll come get you.”
“No!” Tiffany almost yelled. “I’ll come to you. I’ll…be at the academy around ten…tonight.”
“Tiffany?” Trent pleaded. “Where are you?”
“I have to go.” The line disconnected.
“Tiff?!…Tiff?!” Trent slammed the phone down in frustration. He looked up as the door opened and Carlos and Butch walked in. “Tiffany just called.”
Carlos stopped and stared at him. “That’s not funny, Trent.”
“I mean it,” Trent insisted. He walked to his friend. “I would never joke about something like this.”
Carlos kept staring as the words finally soaked through. “She’s alive?” he asked. Trent nodded. “She’s alive!” Carlos smiled broadly. “Where is she? How is she? How’d she sound?”
“Slow down,” Trent said. “I don’t know where she is…she wouldn’t say. She sounded scared…said that she would be here tonight around ten.”
Butch looked at her watch. “That’s about an hour from now.” He turned to Carlos. “How do you want to handle this?”
“Do you want to keep this a secret, or call the police?”
Carlos remembered the files that Tiffany had shown him. “We keep it a secret…for now.”
The door opened slowly and a figure walked in. She looked around, then hesitantly went to the main room.
She whirled to the voice, a frightened look on her face. “Carlos,” Tiffany sighed, then collapsed to the floor.
Carlos hurried over, checked her breathing, and then scooped her into his arms. “Blanket, pillow, and water!” he ordered as he carried Tiffany to the office. He laid her down gently on the couch, took the pillow and blanket from Trent, and the glass of water from Butch.
He put the pillow under her head and covered her with the blanket. “Tiff? Tiffany? Hon? It’s me, Carlos…can you hear me?”
Tiffany moaned lightly. “Did you just call me hon?” She opened her eyes and squinted at him.
Carlos smiled. “Hi.” He brought the glass to her lips. “Here, drink some of this.”
Tiffany coughed as she swallowed the water, then closed her eyes again. “I need to sleep,” she mumbled.
“Go right ahead,” Carlos whispered as he brushed a strand of hair away from her eyes. “I’ll be here when you wake up.”
“Mmm-hmm,” Tiffany mumbled. “Call…Walker.”
Tiffany nodded, then fell asleep.
Rangers Walker and Trivette listened as Carlos, Trent, and Butch explained what little they knew about what had happened to Tiffany.
Walker took a computer disc out of his pocket and held it up. “Did she say anything about this?”
Carlos took the disc. “No…what is it?” He handed it back.
“I received this in the mail today,” Walker said. “It was sent by Detective Chambers…with a note saying that you had told her that I was the best person to handle this.”
“I said that?” Carlos looked at him blankly. “I mean…I did tell her that I could call you about the files…that you were trustworthy…hated corruption.”
Walker smiled slightly. “That’s good to hear. Only problem is that the disc is password protected…we can’t get into it.”
Trent stood up. “We can try it here on my computer.”
“We’ve tried every code we could think of,” Trivette said.
“Maybe,” Trent said. “But you didn’t have Carlos with you.”
Carlos turned a light shade of red. “How would I know what the word is?”
Trent gave him a ‘come on…you know how’ look, took the disc, and booted it up on his computer. He looked at his friend. “Any ideas?”
Carlos looked at Walker. “What have you tried?”
“Her parents names…family names…your name…past partners names.”
Carlos turned back to Trent. “Chiquita.” Trent typed it in. Access denied appeared on the screen. “Ummm…T.R.” Access denied. “Miami.” Access denied.
“Try Stud Muffin,” Kim said. She stepped back as Carlos glared at him. “What?”
Trent exhaled. “This thing is stubborn.”
Carlos smiled at that and a memory flooded back. “Jackass.”
Trent looked at him. “I beg your pardon??”
“Try jackass,” Carlos said, then sighed. “Don’t argue, just do.”
Trent typed it in, waited for the familiar message, then smiled as the file opened. “Jackass it is.”
“Jackass?” Butch asked.
“Don’t ask.” Carlos bent down to get a better look at the files.
“You have a very messed up love life,” Butch whispered.
Tiffany lay on the couch and watched the group of men as they read the files on the computer screen. She blinked a few times, then sat up.
Carlos glanced up form his reading to make sure she was sleeping okay, and smiled when he saw her watching him. He said something to the man standing beside him, and then the two walked towards the couch.
“Tiffany?” the tall bearded man asked. He sat crouched in front of her when she nodded. “I’m Ranger Walker. Do you feel up to answering a few questions?”
“Sure,” she replied, “why not.” She looked at Carlos. “Can you get me a coffee?”
Carlos nodded. “I’ll be right back.” He walked away.
“Thanks…” Tiffany turned back to Walker. “What do you want to know?”
“Start with the night you were abducted.” Walker moved to the small chair beside the couch.
Tiffany inhaled deeply. “It was around…ten thirty…maybe closer to eleven…uh…I just got back from dropping that disc in the mailbox…somebody knocked on my door.”
“Were you expecting anyone?”
“Just Carlos,” Tiffany said. “I answered it…” She paused as she accepted the steaming cup of coffee from Carlos. Her hands shook slightly as she took a sip. “Needs more sugar.”
“I put three in,” Carlos told her. Tiffany stared at him and held the cup back out. “If you don’t want me to hear this, then just say so.”
Tiffany sighed. “Sit.” She waited until he sat beside her before she continued. “Where was I?”
“You answered the door,” Walker said.
“Yeah…I answer the door…there’s three huge guys there…shot me with a…tranquilizer, or something like that.” She took another sip of her coffee, and sighed. “That’s all I remember…until I woke up in some hospital.”
“Hospital?” Carlos asked. “We checked all the hospitals.”
“This was more like a…mental hospital.” Tiffany had a far away look in her eyes. “The people who brought me there told the staff that I was violent, and had delusions that I was a cop.”
“How did you get out?” Walker asked and leaned forward.
Tiffany shut her eyes for a moment. “Can we go over this later?”
“We should go over it while it’s fresh in your mind,” Walker pointed out.
Tiffany glared at him. “I guarantee that I’m not going to soon forget. It can wait an hour or so!”
Walker nodded. “Fine. One more question though. Who was the woman in your house?”
Walker took out a picture and showed it to her. “She was found on your kitchen floor.”
Tiffany’s hands shook as she looked at the picture, and Carlos quickly took the cup of coffee from her before it could spill. “Mandy,” she whispered.
“Mandy…Browen.” Tiffany blinked back tears as she looked at the image. “My best friend. She has…had a key…her husband beats up on her, so I gave her a key in case she needed to get away…” The picture fell from her grasp and landed on the floor as she closed her eyes. Get a grip! Act like a cop!
“Are you okay?” Carlos asked.
Tiffany opened her eyes and nodded. She could see the others in the room discretely watching. “I’ll be fine. I do, however, need more sugar in that coffee.”
Carlos sighed, stood up, and walked away with the cup. Tiffany turned to Walker. “All right, here’s the deal,” she whispered in a hard voice. “I tell you everything that I can remember about who took me, the files, and that hospital…which isn’t a whole hell of a lot…and in return, I get full authority to get whoever killed Mandy.”
Walker stared for a few moments. “Why would you need my authority?”
“You’re here…A detective goes missing?…this is a obviously a Ranger’s case…and both you and I know that the department won’t let me back on active duty until I pass psych requirements. That could take weeks…I can’t wait that long.” She inhaled deeply. “In other words, I need to draw whoever did this to me out into the open.”
“All right,” Walker nodded. “I’ll see what I can do to help.”
Tiffany smiled at Carlos as he handed her the coffee again, and took a sip. “Perfect.”
“Good,” Carlos smiled back. Five sugars?? Gag.
Tiffany started to stand, faltered slightly, and sat back down. “Guess I’m still a little woozy.”
“Sit there for awhile,” Walker told her. “Rest.”
“I want to take a shower,” Tiffany tried to stand again. She accepted Carlos’ hand, and got to her feet. “Where’s the showers?”
“I’ll show you.” Carlos guided her out of the room.
Trivette walked over. “How is she?”
“Angry,” Walker said as he watched her leave. “And scared.”
Tiffany stood under the spray, and closed her eyes as it ran down her body. That feels soooo good!!
“You okay in there?” Carlos asked from the outer room.
“Yeah!” Tiffany answered as she grabbed the soap. Her hand started to shake, and she stared at it in annoyance. Not now!!! Think about this later! She ran the bar of soap along her arm. After this is over with, you can freak out and have a nervous breakdown…After! You hear me?!? Oh, God…I’m not going to make it…Yes you are! You’ve been through worse. Tiffany laughed softly. Too late, girl…you’re already arguing with yourself.
“Uh…need any help?” Carlos called through the door.
Tiffany laughed lightly. “That’s okay…maybe later.” She smiled as she imagined his reaction to that. She turned off the water and reached for a towel, only to come up empty-handed. “Carlos?”
“Could you bring me a towel?”
Carlos was silent for a moment. “Uh…okay.” The door opened and he stuck his head in. “You decent?”
Tiffany rolled her eyes at him over the top of the shower door. “I’m standing naked in a shower stall…what do you think?” She could swear she noticed him raise his head slightly to get a better view.
“Uh…” He was turning a rather bright shade of red.
“Doesn’t matter anyway,” Tiffany said as swung the door open and stepped out.
Carlos’ eyes momentarily grew wide, then slammed shut. “I didn’t see a thing!” he promised. He held the towel out. “Here.”
“Thanks.” Tiffany approached and took the towel from him. She walked back to the stall.
Carlos cracked his eyes open slightly, bit his lip, and turned around. “Do…” he coughed to clear his throat. “Do you need fresh clothes…or anything like that?”
“You mean I can’t walk around in a towel for the rest of the day?”
Carlos choked slightly and closed his eyes as blood rushed to his head. “Well, I suppose you could…I mean, I wouldn’t mind—“
“The clothes I came in with will be fine,” Tiffany interrupted. She stared at his back for a moment. “I think we need to talk.”
“Carlos…turn around…I can’t hold a conversation with your back.”
Carlos turned slowly, and was somewhat disappointed to see that Tiffany had the towel wrapped around her. “Better?” Tiffany nodded. “What did you want to talk about?”
“Us.” Tiffany sat on one of the benches in the shower room.
Carlos sighed, and sat beside her. “Thought so. Before you start, I just want to say that while you were gone, I was worried and scared. I thought that I might never see you again…and I’m mad at myself for not staying with you that night…and for not discovering that I liked you sooner.”
“Carlos,” Tiffany sighed. “It’s not your fault that I was…abducted…and…I’m sorry I worried you.” She smiled softly at him. “I had a lot of time to think while I was strapped to that hospital bed. I realized that I do like you…a lot.”
Carlos smiled in relief. “Good. I was hoping that you would…that I wouldn’t be making a complete jerk out of myself.” He paused. “So, we like each other…now what?”
“Well…for starters, you could kiss me.”
(Later at the ranch)
Carlos sat behind Tiffany and held her as she slept. He kissed the top of her head, and paused as his eyes traveled down. He could see down the top of her shirt, and absently thought that he really should not be staring. Don’t be a perv, Carlos…look away. He gawked for a few more moments then looking out the window.
He thought about how nice she felt in his arms, and tried to figure out why Tiffany had this effect on him. He had been with many women before…no, not women. As Trent had once put it, ‘You like girls’. True, Carlos usually went for ladies younger than him, and ones that were not as complicated as Tiffany. Still, he could not figure out the why he wanted to be with her. He ran through the reasons in his mind. Okay, she’s annoying…stubborn…smart…smokes from time to time…All the things I try to avoid. And…she’s a year older than me…so why do I want her? He blinked when he realized the answer. Oh, no! I’m growing up! A look of mock horror crossed his face.
Carlos kissed the top of Tiffany’s head, and once again, his eyes traveled down her shirt. “Help me understand what it is you do to me,” he whispered in Spanish.