Excerpt from UNDER THE MISTLETOE WITH JOHN DOE, November 2010
A Texas honky-tonk was the last place Jason Alvarez could have imagined himself being on a Wednesday night. But here he was, turning into the graveled driveway of the Stagecoach Inn.
It had been a long day, starting with an early morning workout at the gym, followed by an executive board meeting at Alvarez Industries. After having a business lunch with his brothers at an upscale restaurant in downtown San Diego, he'd flown to Houston on the corporate jet, then rented a car and made a two-hour drive to Brighton Valley.
He'd stopped once he'd reached the sleepy little town and asked where he could find a local watering hole. Apparently this backwoods cowboy dive was the nearest and the most popular.
The parking lot was only half-full, though, so finding a spot was easy. He pulled in between a white Chrysler LeBaron with a missing taillight and a beat-up Chevy pickup with gun racks and pasted decals in the rear window that said the driver's name was Eddie and his passenger was Arlene.
Without even stepping inside the place, Jason had a feeling he wasn't going to like the music or fit in with the crowd. But he was on a mission, and personal preferences didn't matter.
So he shut off the ignition of the rental car, a black Cadillac Seville, and unhooked his seat belt. But he didn't get out right away.
Instead, he reached for the bottle of aspirin he'd tucked into the pocket of his sports jacket and opened the child-resistant cap. Then he threw a couple of tablets into his mouth and chased them down with the remainder of the bottled water he kept in the built-in cup holder.
His head was aching again, a result of the concussion he'd suffered earlier this week in an automobile accident.
He'd been using the Bluetooth device on his cell phone when it happened, distracted by a business matter, his mind on everything but the road. His Mercedes had zipped right through the intersection, T-boning a minivan and injuring a pregnant blonde as well as her little girl.
Jason, who'd suffered only a concussion and some minor bruises and lacerations, had rushed to help the other victims, calling 9-1-1 as he did so.
Then he'd stood by helplessly as firemen used the Jaws of Life to remove the woman from the driver's seat and the paramedics treated the child. The police had questioned him, and he'd clearly been at fault—the officers had known it, and Jason had known it.
When they'd told him he should be checked out by EMTs and taken to the hospital just to make sure he was okay, he'd declined treatment, saying he'd see his personal physician later.
The memories were just as clear now as they'd been on Saturday afternoon—the shattered glass, the twisted metal, the moans of the pregnant driver, the cries of the frightened little girl.
The guilt had just about sucked the life out of him, and he'd finally confided in Mike, his older brother, telling him that he thought he should take a leave of absence. He'd just wanted some time to sort out a few things—and he wasn't just talking about the guilt he was dealing with because of the accident. He wondered if the concussion he'd suffered might have done something to his thought process because he was questioning a whole lot of things the past few days, things he'd never even blinked at before.
But Mike, who was facing a false accusation and a few legal problems of his own, had said, "Don't worry about it, little brother. Accidents happen, and what's done is done. I've got the company attorneys on it already."
Yeah, right. The same attorneys who were already at work on the allegation of sexual harassment against Mike—a charge he was probably guilty of. And one that would make the family look bad.
Jason raked a hand through his hair, glanced into the rearview mirror at his haggard reflection, then shook his head and blew out a sigh. No matter how badly he felt about the tragic accident he'd caused, his brother had been right about one thing—there wasn't much he could do about it after the fact.
But the guilt and the memory of the whole surreal scene was something he'd have to live with for a long, long time.
Now, as he got out of the car and hit the lock button on the key-ring remote, he glanced at the orange-neon open sign that hung off-kilter from a front window of the cowboy bar. He sure hoped his hunch had been right, that Pedro Salas had returned to his hometown. And that the former employee would agree to come back to California to testify on behalf of Mike and the entire Alvarez family—if he needed to.
To make the request even more appealing, he'd been told to offer Pedro his old job back—if he wanted it.
Of course, that smacked of a bribe, as far as Jason was concerned. And if it was, he'd have to deal with the reality of his oldest brother's fall from grace—at least, in Jason's eyes.
He supposed that a lot had to ride on just what Pedro had to say.
As Jason's leather soles crunched upon the graveled parking lot, he hoped that he'd find Pedro here, drowning his sorrows in a bottle. It certainly seemed likely, because drinking on the job had led to Pedro's discharge from Alvarez Industries. And that was why looking for him in one of the local bars seemed to be the logical first step.
Jason had always liked Pedro. He'd sympathized with him, too. The poor guy had lost his wife and son in a fire back in 2002 and had never gotten over the loss.
It was easy to see, especially now, how a man might want to escape painful memories and grief any way he could—at least for a while.
Jason was tempted to shake his own demons, too—the nightmares of sirens, the blood, the cries. The fact that his focus on business, rather than the road ahead, had caused the whole thing.
Hell, even his ex-wife had accused him of being so obsessed with work that he was incapable of loving anyone more than he loved Alvarez Industries.
At the time, he'd wanted to argue with her, but a piece of him had been afraid that she might be right.
As Jason stepped into the darkened bar, music blared from an old jukebox and hoots of laughter tore through the room, its air heavy with stale smoke and booze.
For a moment, it seemed as if he'd stepped onto a movie set, and he couldn't help pausing in the doorway for a beat, watching the people cut loose and have fun. But the sooner he found Pedro, the sooner he could go home.
When he spotted an empty table, he made his way across the scuffed and scarred hardwood floor. He'd hardly taken a seat when a cocktail waitress with bleached-blond hair approached. He guessed her to be in her late thirties, but it was hard to tell. Nicotine, booze or a hard life had a way of aging a person beyond his or her years.
She offered him a smile that failed to take the load off her shoulders. "What'll you have?"
He wasn't sure if a bar out in the sticks would carry imported beer. "Do you have Corona?"
She nodded. "You want lime with it?"
"Yes, thanks." He watched her walk away, but not because he fancied her. Instead, he noted the way she rolled her shoulders as if her back ached.
When she returned, she set his drink in front of him.
"I'm looking for a man named Pedro Salas," he said. "From what I understand, he was born and raised in Brighton Valley and had planned to retire here."
"Is he an old guy?" she asked.
"About forty-five or fifty."
"That's pretty young to retire." She glanced at Jason's sports jacket, probably noting the expensive fabric, the stylish cut. "Well, unless he's rich or something."
For the first time, he began to realize his hunch might have been wrong, that Pedro might have stayed in California and found another job. But the last time they'd talked, he'd had such a yearning, wistful look in his eyes when he'd talked about ranches and horses that Jason made the assumption that he'd run home.
"He mentioned that his father used to work on a small spread in this area," Jason added. "He grew up on the place and went to school here."
She seemed to give it some thought, then slowly shook her head. "I'm sorry. The name doesn't ring a bell. And there're quite a few ranches in these parts—both big and small."
She could have left it at that, but instead, she hung back, as though hoping for an invitation to sit with him, to chat awhile longer, to rest her tired feet.
But he wasn't up for company. And even though he wasn't a loner or a drifter by nature, he'd just as soon finish his beer and then find a room for the night.
"Can I get you anything else?" she asked.
"No, thanks. I'm good."
"Well, my name's Trina. Just give me a holler when you want another beer."
As she went on her way, he took a healthy chug of the ice-cold Corona and scanned the bar crowd, most of whom didn't appear to have noticed him.
There was a part of Jason that just wanted to find Pedro and get a declaration that the attorneys could work with. But rather than flying home immediately after completing the task, it seemed a whole lot more appealing to hang out in a small town like this for a while, in a place where no one knew him or his family, where he'd have the peace and privacy to sort out a few things.
But he couldn't afford to take the time away from the office long enough to lick his wounds.
He supposed Renee, his ex, had been right about him. He was too focused on business. But his family had always been important to him, and his loyalty ran deep. Of course, he wasn't going to cry in his beer over the divorce—or the accident. Not here, not now.
Instead, he decided to make his way through the honky-tonk and ask people about Pedro.
Ten minutes later, he hadn't learned squat. So far, no one seemed to know the man he'd been looking for. He wasn't sure if his lead on Pedro had been false or if people had collectively clammed up in a small-town effort to protect their own.
Either way, neither the aspirin nor the beer had taken the edge off his headache, and he decided to call it a night.
He reached into his pocket for his wallet and pulled out a ten-dollar bill. After leaving it on the table for Trina, he got to his feet.
He'd no more than started for the door when a tall, lanky cowboy entered the bar, along with a short, stocky companion. Jason wondered if it was worth talking to either of them, but before he could make a move one way or the other, Trina approached the men.
When she faced them head-on, she slapped her hands on her hips. "Unless you two are carrying more than counterfeit bills this time, your money's not welcome here."
"You can't blame that on us," the chubby guy said. "We got 'em right out of the ATM down at the filling station."
"Yeah, right," Trina said. "Are you going to leave? Or do I have to call security?"
"You mean that scrawny old geezer you called last time?" The slim one laughed. "He couldn't throw my ninety-eight-pound granny across the room."
Chubby headed for the bar, clearly not listening to the waitress and apparently not worried about whoever provided security at the honky-tonk.
"I told you to get out of here," Trina said, raising her voice above the din of music and all the barroom chatter.
Ignoring Trina's words and tone, Slim stood tall and threw his chest out. "What do you care, baby? You don't own the place. And that quarter tip we left after your lousy service was the real deal."
Jason scanned the cowboy joint, looking for security or for a sign that someone would back him up, but the jukebox blared with a lively beat and the hoots of laughter continued. So finding someone to step up to the plate and take his side wasn't likely.
When Slim grabbed Trina's arm and gave it a jerk and a twist, Jason's protective instinct kicked in and he made his way toward them.
"Why don't you guys just back off and leave the lady alone," he said.
"She ain't no lady." Slim released his grip on Trina and turned to Jason. "And who in the hell are you?"
"Just a man who doesn't like to see women mistreated." Jason preferred to use his head instead of his brawn, but that might not be an option tonight.
Fortunately, at that point, a big burly guy stepped in—a bouncer, it seemed.
And this one wasn't a scrawny old man.
At about six-foot-six and probably weighing close to three hundred pounds—nearly all muscle—he could have taken on a couple of linebackers for the Houston Texans without breaking a sweat.
"I don't want any trouble," the bouncer said, "so you guys will have to take your squabble outside. Or better yet, go on home and call it a night."
Slim mellowed right out and tossed the man a chipped-tooth grin. "We were just havin' a little fun."
The bouncer crossed his muscular arms, his biceps stretching the cotton fabric of his T-shirt to the limit. "Yeah, well, take your fun somewhere else."
"Come on," Slim called to his buddy. "Let's go on down to Larry's Place. The help is a lot friendlier there."
Apparently, Chubby saw the wisdom in Slim's suggestion, and they both headed out the door like a couple of docile pups, their tails tucked between their legs.
When they were gone, the bouncer turned his gaze on Jason, as though he wasn't all that welcome here, either.
"It's okay," Trina said on Jason's behalf. "This guy hasn't been any trouble. He stepped in to defend me while you were in the stockroom."
Jason wasn't sure what he'd been expecting from the bouncer—a thank-you, maybe. But he didn't get anything.
He did, however, make a mental note to check out Larry's Place tomorrow. He certainly wasn't going to follow Slim and Chubby anywhere tonight.
"Do you know where I can find a motel?" he asked Trina.
"The Night Owl is a couple of blocks down the street."
"It doesn't look like much on the outside," she added, "but it's clean and the beds are soft."
He didn't ask how she knew that. Instead, he thanked her, then strode toward the door. On his way out, he reached into his pocket for the keys to his rental car and headed for the parking lot.
A streetlight at the road was flickering, yet it gave off just enough light for him to see someone near the driver's door of his vehicle, as if trying to break in.
"Hey!" he called out, picking up his pace.
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