The Towman's Daughters Excerpt

Chapter One

He'd knocked down a few, sure, but Dugan couldn't blame what happened only on the alcohol. After all, he hadn't been totally wasted when he stepped up to rescue Isobel Cho from that gunman at Wancho's Towing.

It was Friday night, or actually around one o'clock Saturday morning, and being a hero had definitely not been on Dugan's to-do list. No way. He just wanted to retrieve his car—Kirsten's Camry, actually, she being out of town until probably Tuesday—and go home and sleep until noon. It seemed a perfectly reasonable idea at the time. Of course he was a little juiced up, and mad as hell, and not about to hand over two hundred bucks for a half-hour's parking.

It had been years since Dugan was out socially on a Friday night—or any night, for that matter—without Kirsten. But he'd spent most of the day at the Attorney Disciplinary Commission, trying to hang on to his law license, and when he got back to his office it was almost six o'clock. Larry Candle, one of the three lawyers who worked for Dugan, said he was meeting a few guys at Twin Anchors, on Sedgwick, for ribs. Dugan, against his better judgment, agreed to go along. A couple of hours later they ran into another guy Larry knew, and had a couple of beers with him. One thing led to another, and Dugan somehow got the idea that he and Larry should get Kirsten's car and drive up to a place on Manheim Road, near O'Hare, to check out a poker game they'd heard about. So they did that, and it didn't take long to discover the game was way out of their league. They left—the first intelligent decision Dugan made that whole night—and drove back downtown, where he dropped Larry off at his condo and then headed for home.

Without Kirsten, though, home exerted less of a pull, so he stopped off at a place called Cawley's Tap, on Diversey. He'd worked halfway through a Dewar's on the rocks, when this glassy-eyed, long-legged girl in a short leather skirt put a move on him and—making his second, and last, intelligent decision of the night—he downed part two of the scotch, grabbed his jacket, and was out the exit... just in time to see the Camry being towed down the street. The hot dog stand across from Cawley's was closed, so why should anyone care if he parked there? And he sure hadn't seen any No Parking sign.

He ran over and looked again, though, and, yes, the sign was there. Way up on the wall, with the light above it burned out. The sign said: "Unauthorized vehicles will be towed to Wancho's Towing." It gave an address and a phone number... and told him it would cost him two hundred dollars to get the car back.

"Two bills my ass!" Dugan yelled, as the tow truck and the Camry disappeared around the corner. He dug into his pocket for his cellphone... and remembered he'd shut it off and left it in the car.

It was quite a warm middle-of-the-night for Chicago in June, and there were plenty of loud-talking, weekend-loving people on the street. He got a cab easily. The driver was a Sikh or something, wearing a turban, and tried to talk Dugan out of going. "Better you go in the morning, when your thoughts are more clear-cut," he said. "Then you pay your money and forget about it. With such people, one cannot win."

"Thanks for the advice," Dugan said. "But just take me to goddamn Wancho's."

If the Sikh hadn't driven like a maniac maybe Dugan would have had time to cool down, and to give some consideration to the things he'd learned about Wancho's and its thugs a year earlier when he'd sued them on behalf of a client. But when the cab pulled up to the place he was still mad as hell... and convinced his thoughts were as "clear-cut' as they needed to be.

So maybe the alcohol did have a part in getting him to Wancho's that night. But the rest of what happened? Chalk it up to fate, or bad karma, or whatever.

In a neighborhood marked mostly by vacant lots and abandoned factories, Wancho's was essentially a huge fenced-in parking lot—not much smaller than a football field—with an office. The office was a one-story concrete block building on the north side of the street, with eight-foot-high chain-link fencing extending out from each side. The fence ran along the sidewalk in each direction, ending at a railroad embankment on the west and a boarded-up, two-story brick warehouse on the east. One section of the fence, near the office, was an electronically-operated gate that opened and closed by sliding sideways on a track-and-pulley system.

The fence was obviously old, but in decent shape, with angled barbed wire along the top and aluminum slats woven through the links to make it difficult to see through. Even where a few of the slats were broken or bent, it was too dark in the lot for Dugan to pick out the Camry. It was bright inside the office, though. The entrance door and most of the front wall were glass, and he could see into a waiting area with half a dozen cheap plastic chairs. Against the back wall stood an ATM machine, and beside that was a cashier's window. Very convenient, Dugan thought, to be able to get cash so you could ransom your own car back from a bunch of thieving crooks.

The Sikh had offered to wait, "in case there occurs difficulty in getting your vehicle back,' but Dugan waved him away. Other than the cashier, there were four people inside the office: two slick-haired young toughs—Mexicans, he was certain—standing near the cashier's window, facing a man and a woman who had their backs to the entrance. The woman wore a bright-red spaghetti-strapped sundress, and had long dark hair and a deep tan. Her escort was a broad-shouldered, dark-skinned black man, with a shiny shaved head and an electric-blue short-sleeved sport shirt hanging loose outside his jeans. He had one muscular arm—his left arm—wrapped around his lady's shoulders, squeezing her close to his side, and he was nodding his head up and down like he was talking to her…or maybe to the Mexicans.

The couple started walking backwards toward the entrance, which—Dugan realized later—should have raised a red flag. But just then he was busy being pissed off about the car and the barely visible No Parking sign. As he got closer, he did sort of half-wonder why the two didn't finally break off their embrace and turn around and walk out frontwards. But they never did, and just as they backed up to the door he got there, too.

"I got it," he called, as he yanked it open.

The black guy must have been planning to hit the door with his upper back, and when the door wasn't there he lost his balance and started to fall backwards. "Damn!" he yelled, and flung his left arm out to get his balance, letting go of the woman.

She screamed and the guy grabbed at her, but he was still stumbling backwards, and would have gone down, except he fell right into Dugan's arms. Which is when Dugan saw the nickel-plated pistol in the guy's hand and suddenly realized he'd been dragging the girl out the door.

"Oops, sorry," Dugan said, wrapping his arms loosely around the guy's body from behind and stepping back, as though tangled up and trying to keep them both from falling. The guy struggled to get his balance, but Dugan kept pulling him and then, yanking hard on his right arm, he stepped out of the way and let the guy fall, arms flung wide, to the sidewalk.

At about six feet, the man was a little shorter than Dugan, but bulky, and landed on his back and hit his head on the concrete. The gun flew out of his hand and Dugan heard it skitter along the sidewalk, off where it was dark.

Right away the guy was up on his knees, looking around for his weapon. It wasn't in sight, and he got to his feet and turned toward Dugan, who assumed that by then the Wancho's people must already have called the cops.

"Jesus, sorry," Dugan said, listening for sirens. "Didn't mean to get in your way." He raised his hands. Conciliatory. "But I'm with ya. Sons o' bitches took my car, too, and—"

"Fuck you," the guy said, mad as hell. He took a step toward Dugan, then obviously changed his mind and turned to find his gun.

Dugan didn't like that idea. He ran up behind the guy and yelled, "Hey, over here!"

When the man spun around, Dugan swept his right arm across and, fist clenched, slammed the heel of his palm into the guy's left ear, then came back with the heel of his other hand, up and hard into his chest.

It was a basic technique, practiced a thousand times in the last year or so, and the man should have stumbled backwards and dropped like a sack of rocks. But this was one tough thug. He charged, and Dugan pivoted aside and slipped out of the way as the man went right on past. His momentum, with a little help from a shove in the small of the back, propelled him forward too fast for his feet and he tripped off the curb with his arms spread wide and sailed head first on to the street, and slid his face along the concrete.

Even so, as Dugan finally heard the sound of approaching sirens, the man got to his feet again. At that moment, though, a black Cadillac sedan slid up. The driver said something Dugan couldn't hear and the man jumped in, and the Caddy was gone. Then the cop cars, wherever they were headed, wailed past on some street a block or two away, and they were gone, too.

By the time Dugan got inside the office, neither the two young Mexicans nor the girl he'd saved from the gunman were in sight. He tried the door beside the cashier's window, where they must have gone, but it was locked. He stepped over to the window. It was bulletproof glass with a metal slide beneath it to put your money in... money they stole from you in return for your stolen car.

A heavy-set young Latina scowled at him and spoke through a round metal grate set in the glass. "Can I help you?"

"Yeah," he said. "Where'd those people go?"

"Peeble?" Chewing her gum and acting like she didn't understand him. "No entiendo."

"Los hombres," he said, "and la... la chica. Donde van?" Miss Davis, his old Spanish teacher, would have been proud. "Where did—"

"You here to pick up a vehicle, sir?"

"You're damn right I am, but..." He gave up. "A Camry. They just brought it in. And if you think I'm gonna pay—"

"Wait, please." She swiveled away from the window and typed on a keyboard off to her left. Finally she turned back. "Your vehicle will be out in front." She pointed. "No charge."

He turned toward the front door, and saw the Camry already coming out the gate and being parked at the curb. They obviously didn't need an ignition key around here. He started for the door, then turned and went back to the window. "Listen," he said, leaning toward the glass, "who was—"

A door burst open in the wall behind the cashier, maybe ten feet back, and one of the two Mexican toughs came out, and behind him the woman in the red dress. Finally came a different man, an older, beefy-looking guy.

"Hey!" Dugan called.

The three of them stopped and stared at him, wide-eyed.

"I'm the one," he shouted, pointing at his own chest. "I saved her!"

The woman took a step his way, but the younger punk yanked on her arm and dragged her toward a different door, which the older guy opened. One of the straps of her dress had slipped off her shoulder.

Dugan was too surprised at being ignored to think what to say, but as she was pulled through the door the woman hiked the strap back up over her shoulder and pointed a finger right at him. "Dammit!" she yelled. "Why couldn't you mind your own—"

The door closed behind her.

Hoping the tow thugs hadn't stolen his phone, he ran outside to the Camry. A man stood beside the open driver's door. Tall and wide, with a nose that over the years had been battered nearly flat against his face, this one was a thug-and-a-half. And he didn't step aside from the car door as Dugan approached.

Instead, he nodded politely. "Señor Cho is grateful for your help," he said. "This is a good deed he will not forget."

"Bullshit." Dugan, wondering what part of Mexico this huge guy could be from, looked up at him. "Whoever that woman in red is, she doesn't think I did something good. I'm calling the—"

"No." The guy rested his fist on Dugan's shoulder. "Listen carefully, señor." He pressed down and the fist felt like one of those iron shot-put balls Dugan's cousin used to heave in high school. "The 'woman in red' you speak of, she is the daughter of Señor Juan Cho. Your actions here have saved you so far two hundred dolares. And now, what happened you will keep to yourself. Because this way you will save yourself also very much trouble, amigo." He grinned. "Entiende?"

"Yeah," Dugan said. "I get it."

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