"I need the best," the dame in the doorway said.
She sashayed in to my office, her painted-on skirt hugging curves tighter than a Ferrari maneuvering the Swiss Alps. Her hips twitched out a message in Morse Code just for me -- a message I considered answering, then thought better of it.
You just never know with dames.
I keep a hard wooden chair across from my desk. Uncomfortable, so as to discourage clients from staying and shooting the breeze. She glided to the chair and sat down. Her short, red skirt rode up her thigh, revealing the black lace top of thigh-high stockings.
I sucked in my breath and cursed buying that damn chair.
"They tell me that's you," she crooned. "The best, I mean." I concentrated on the way her lips moved under blood-red lipstick. "I need you, Mr. Anderson."
Anderson? Who the hell was Anderson? "You got the wrong sap, lady," I said. A damn shame, too. "The name's Monroe. Philip Monroe. Private detective, at your service."
"Mr. Anderson!" The feminine voice filtered through the door, accompanied by the staccato rhythm of someone pounding to get in. "Hello? Is anybody there?"
David Anderson clicked off his microcassette recorder, reality settling around him like a wet wool blanket. He had no idea who the hell had interrupted him, but if the pounding was any indication, she wasn't going away anytime soon. "Hang on," he said, swinging his feet off the desk. "I'm coming."
With a groan, he levered himself out of his chair and made his way around the pine kitchen table he'd converted to a desk. He managed to avoid knocking over the stack of boxes filled with classic-rock vinyl and a few old T-shirts, but wasn't so lucky with the novels piled up next to the sofa, and his copies of I, The Jury, Vengeance Is Mine, and other hard-boiled classics ended up scattered all over the floor.
"Hello?" That voice again, only meeker this time.
"Just a sec," he yelled. Irritated by both the interruption and his own clumsiness, he kicked a copy of My Gun Is Quick, sending it sliding over the hardwood floor. It came to rest by the ancient Royal typewriter he periodically tried to fix. A damn fine novel, it didn't deserve such treatment, and he stifled the urge to drop down and rescue it. Time enough for that after he got rid of whoever was at the door. Probably a Jehovah's Witness. Or a Girl Scout. He half frowned. If that was the case, he'd take a box of Thin Mints before he sent her packing.
"Mr. Anderson! Please. It's raining."
He negotiated the rest of the obstacle course he called his floor until he reached the door. He flung it open and there she was -- a drowned rat of a woman in white Keds, a soggy yellow sundress, and matted red hair.
Not that he'd been expecting the dame from his scene, but this gal didn't even come close. Unlike the coiffed woman in his head, this girl's chin-length curls looked like they wouldn't coif if her life depended on it. And no too-tight skirt for this gal. Her gauzy dress fell almost to her ankles, revealing nothing more provocative than lacy socks and white sneakers.
This woman was no femme fatale, but she sure as hell wasn't a Girl Scout, either. Damn disappointing. Especially since she'd pulled him away from what was developing into a damn good scene. And he hadn't come up with a damn good scene in a long time. He needed a good scene -- several, actually -- if he ever hoped to sell one of his novels.
The way his writing had been going lately, that fine day promised to be a cold one in hell.
"Well, damn," he said, leaning against the doorjamb. "So much for cookies."
"Excuse me?" Her eyes widened, her long lashes framing emerald green irises. The woman herself might be bland as hell, but she had nice eyes. He added a point to his mental tally, bringing her up to one and a half. The half was for the red hair. He'd always been a sucker for redheads.
"Thin Mints," he said, as if that would clear it all up for her.
Instead of asking, she gave him that look -- the one all women shared but apparently didn't come with Y chromosomes -- and inched closer to the open door. "Can I come in?"
"That depends," he said. "Who are you and what are you selling?"
She blinked, then looked around, as if the answer to his question could be found lurking on the stairs leading up to his tiny garage apartment. "Uh, I'm Jacey Wilder."
A niggling feeling in the back of his mind told him that name should mean something.
"I have an appointment?" she added, the statement coming out as a question.
A client. Of course. Well, that made sense. His annoyance at the interruption faded. As much as he needed a damn good scene, he needed money more. Lately his investigation career had been about as dry as his writing career.
"Yeah. Right. Sorry." He stepped back and ushered her all the way in. "I'm a little distracted this morning."
She brushed past him. "I guess so."
Ignoring her smart-aleck response, he shut the door and then led her across the room. The living room doubled as his office, so he aimed her toward the sofa that faced his desk. The cushions were buried under piles of Dashiell Hammett novels, true crime magazines, and dessert recipes ripped from the pages of Gourmet and Food and Wine. He swept the whole mess onto the floor before gesturing for her to sit down.
"A little light reading?" she asked.
"Something like that," he said. He grabbed a towel off a pile of rumpled laundry and tossed it to her. He didn't care about the couch, but he figured he ought to make some effort toward being polite.
"Thank you," she said, blotting her face and her dress. She nodded toward the books. "I guess it makes sense. You write true crime books and you're a private investigator, so I'm sure studying The Maltese Falcon comes in handy."
Great. The one client he had lined up and she couldn't stop with the wisecracks. "Book," he said.
Her brow furrowed. "Excuse me?"
"I wrote Stalking Death five years ago. One true crime book in five years. That doesn't make me the J. K. Rowling of true crime, okay?"
Her eyes widened even as her lips thinned. "Sorry. Didn't mean to touch a nerve." Her words were polite, but her expression practically shouted that she thought he was a nutcase.
Maybe he had come on a little strong, but he was sick to death of everyone assuming that since he'd written one true crime book, he was all gung ho to write another. He might need the money -- hell, he might need it a lot -- but he damn sure didn't need the long hours interviewing witnesses, poring over trial transcripts, and hanging out in courtrooms. And, of course, there was the little problem of not having anything to write about even if he was so inclined.
Rather than explain any of that to her, he just said simply, "Now I'm a private investigator. That's what I do."
Not exactly the full truth, but only three people knew that he was working on a novel -- his agent, his Aunt Millie, and, thanks to Aunt Millie's big mouth, his buddy Finn. His aunt was convinced he'd be the next F. Scott Fitzgerald. His agent kept bugging him to forget novels, go hang out with a few rapists, and spit out another gory true crime opus. Finn, thank God, had no thoughts on the matter at all.
Of course, David had no intention of sharing any of that with the likes of Jacey Wilder. Not that she really seemed interested. Instead, she looked mildly concerned about his sanity. Hell, half the time he was concerned about his sanity.
She wet her lips and clutched her purse a little tighter. "Um, have I come at a bad time?"
She had, but that was hardly the girl's fault. He waved the question away, then rubbed his forehead, trying to remember why the hell she'd made an appointment. "Gimme a sec, okay, lady?"
He sat down behind his desk and glanced at the ink blotter until he found the note scribbled in the top left corner: Jacey Wilder. 12:15.
"Look, I've obviously come at a bad time." She stood up, tucking her purse under her arm. "Why don't I just call later to reschedule?"
David's stagnant brain kicked into gear. The girl who could well be his only paycheck for the month was getting ready to leave. That wasn't good, especially since the IRS was suddenly his new best friend.
"No! I mean, wait. Sorry, Ms. Wilder. Just distracted by a case." He smiled his most charming smile and waited for lightning to strike him down for his lie.
No lightning. Plus she leaned back against the cushions and put her purse beside her. Okay. The morning was definitely looking up.
"You were saying?" he prompted.
"I said, they told me you were the best. That's what I need, Mr. Anderson. The best. Can you help me?"
"They? Who exactly are they?" As he expected, she squirmed a little on his couch. He expected it because he wasn't the best. Not by a long shot. So either she was lying or someone in town was seriously misinformed. Either way, he was curious.
"Does it really matter who referred me?"
"Of course," he lied. David leaned back in his chair and propped his feet up on his desk, then looked at her over the scuffed toes of his loafers. He'd have to remember to get a shoeshine. "I need to know where my clients are coming from."
"Elliott Talbot," she mumbled.
"Who?" he said. Tacky, but he couldn't resist baiting her. Especially since Talbot wouldn't recommend a taxi in the rain.
She looked up and met his eyes. "Elliott Talbot," she said, this time with more force.
"Oh! Elliott. What a guy, that Elliott. Bet he really sung my praises, huh?" Talbot was one of the most prominent criminal defense attorneys in the Los Angeles area. He was also a big wussy, but that was only David's opinion. Of course, David had expressed that opinion pretty loudly in Stalking Death and Elliott had been known to carry a grudge. If Talbot had referred Jacey, her case had to be lame.
pardThis time when he looked over his toes, she was nibbling on her lower lip. Her cheeks had bloomed a charming shade of pink. And he was beginning to feel like a heel for baiting her.
He swung his feet to the floor and picked up his pencil, twirling it between his fingers like a miniature baton. "Never mind. Doesn't matter." He looked back down at her name on the blotter. He'd written "BF" beside the time. Bananas Foster? Probably not, though maybe he'd make some this weekend. Barely forty? He raked his gaze over her. No way. He guessed twenty-seven, then made a mental note to look up her driver's license and see if he was right.
Boyfriend. Of course. "You're trying to locate a missing boyfriend."
She licked her lips, then nodded. "Yes. Exactly. That's what I told you on the phone, right?"
He nodded absently, wondering about the man who'd skipped out on her. Jacey wasn't David's type, of course. He could tell the moment he opened the door that she was the kind of girl who wanted a picket fence in the front yard and a swing set in the back. He'd been there, done that, and had no interest in traveling that suburban road again. But some men liked that kind of thing and he wondered why Jacey's specimen had skedaddled.
"So give me the rest of the scoop," he said, since Jacey didn't seem inclined to elaborate.
"You nailed it. A missing boyfriend. Just like you said." She smiled. "I'd have to say that sums it up perfectly." She folded her hands in her lap and stared expectantly at him.
He rubbed his forehead. "You wanna maybe give me a little more to go on?"
"Oh. Right. Sorry." She hauled the purse back into her lap and started rummaging through it. She paused midrummage and flashed him a smile. "I'm a little new to this whole PI thing."
"It's pretty painless. Just two steps. Tell me what you know and tell me what you want to find out."
The wattage of her smile gave his lamps a run for their money. "I can do that." After a few more excavations into her cavernous purse, she pulled out an envelope. She stood up and moved to his desk, her hip barely brushing the wood as she plunked the envelope down in front of him. "That's it. That's all I know."
He unfastened the clasp and peered inside -- one photograph and a tattered napkin. He pulled them out and set them on the blotter.
She pointed to the photo, which showed a man walking on the beach. His face was partially in the shadows but was still clear enough, and it looked like the photographer had been up high, maybe on a balcony. "That's him," she said. "The napkin's a note I wrote to myself."
David glanced at the cocktail napkin. Albert Alcott. Harvard Law. "So this is old Albert, huh?" Already, David didn't like the guy. The man was one of those obnoxious pretty-boy types who probably had three or four country club membership cards tucked into his wallet.
Still, David liked the idea of the scorned woman writing her lover's name on a napkin. If it got wet, everything she knew about the guy would dissolve like so many soggy tissues. Then the heroine would have to hire Monroe to find the boyfriend, who, of course, would never be found. And the heroine would fall for Monroe instead. Except, she'd be --
He whipped his head up, managing to pull a muscle in the process. "Sorry. I was just studying his face." He fingered the photograph. "You can learn a lot from a man's face."
"Oh." Her brows drew together, but other than that there were no signs she thought he was nuts. Good.
He clicked on his tape recorder and whispered, "Soggy tissues," then clicked it off again. Now she probably thought he'd lost it, but the scene was too good to risk forgetting.
"So this is Al?" he asked, trying to rub out the sore spot on his neck.
For a second she didn't answer, instead staring at the tape recorder. Then she shook her head slightly and said, "Al. Yes, that's him."
"He was your boyfriend?"
She shifted a bit, then pulled herself up a little taller. "Yeah. Why?"
"Dunno. It's just...Albert." He dragged the name out, pronouncing it through his nose. "I just don't think that Alberts are boyfriend material."
Her eyes narrowed and her cheek pooched out, as if she was truly biting her tongue.
He shrugged. "Just my opinion."
"And I'll bet David is the perfect boyfriend name," she said, crossing her arms over her chest.
"Hell no. Davids are fuckups, too." He grinned. "Believe me. I know."
He glanced at the photo, deciding that maybe back to business was the best plan of action. She was, after all, the one with the checkbook. "He graduated from Harvard?" Old Al must have dropped out. Harvard law grads were a cinch to track down. Just one big alumni society spiderwebbed across the country.
"Yup." Her chin lifted. "With honors," she said, parking herself on his couch again.
"Uh-huh." David leaned back in his desk chair, the one he'd paid extra for so he could lean way back without falling, and linked his hands behind his head. "So you wanna tell me what's really going on?"
"I -- I don't understand."
He tilted his head and raised his eyebrows, trying to convey maximum disbelief. "You don't need the best, Miss Jacey Wilder. From what you've told me, this job's pretty much a cakewalk. Hell, you could probably find him yourself." He grinned. "So that means you must be looking for the cheapest."
The phone rang and he reached for it, covering the mouthpiece as he shot her a wide grin. "As luck would have it, that happens to be me."
Jacey gnawed on her thumbnail as David talked on the phone. She wasn't completely sure she liked David Anderson. In fact, she was pretty sure that, given the chance, she could dislike him intensely, and the fact that he was pretty darn cute didn't change that assessment one bit.
Not that it mattered what she thought of him. Theirs was going to be a purely professional relationship and, from what she could tell, he could get the job done. He might not be the best, but he'd clued into her pathetic financial state easily enough, and that had to mean he had some talent. Even if he was a little odd.
Or a lot odd.
Besides, Elliott had already warned her that David was flaky. Considering her mom, that hadn't worried Jacey at all. Flaky she could handle.
And, since she couldn't afford anyone else, if she wanted to find Al, David was her man. And she did want to find him. Considering what she'd done, though, Jacey could only hope that Al wanted to be found.
"Sorry about that," David said as he hung up the phone. He leaned back again and laced his fingers behind his head. "Where were we?"
"I'm..." She trailed off. She'd never hired a private investigator before and wasn't sure what to say next. "What do I do now?"
"Well, first you write me a check for my retainer. And write your address and phone number on the check if it's not already there so I don't have to use my amazing skills to track you down."
"Oh." She should have figured that much, and she started to rummage through her purse for her checkbook.
"And then you tell me the rest of the story."
She froze in midrummage. "I already told you everything."
"Excuse me, sweetheart, but cut the crap."
She jerked her hand out of the bag, leaving her checkbook behind as she aimed what she hoped was an insulted, annoyed, haughty glare in his direction. "Are you this rude to all your clients? Or am I some special case? Or maybe this is just your version of the Friday lunch special?"
She cocked her head, sure her eyes were flashing, and not so much because he was being unreasonable, but because he'd figured her out once again. "Can I get fries with that insult? No? Well, then how about supersizing it?" Her voice was rising as she babbled and she tamped it down, not at all keen on the thought of losing it in front of David Anderson. "Guess we know the origin of that private dick jargon, huh?"
"And you say I was being rude?"
She frowned, but didn't bother to answer, and held her hands tight in her lap so she wouldn't do additional damage to her thumbnail.
He leaned back farther, the chair creaking precariously. Jacey held her breath, sure he was going to fall backward and break his neck. That wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing, but her CPR was rusty, and she didn't much feel like a good Samaritan at the moment, anyway.
"I'm not rude," he continued, still teetering on the chair. "Just honest. Which is more than I can say for you."
Okay. This was a bit much. The truth, yes, but that wasn't the point. "You don't even know me. How do you know I'm not being honest?"
"Because no one -- least of all a woman -- knows absolutely nothing about a boyfriend except his name and where he went to school."
This time she crossed her arms over her chest and crossed her legs. "Least of all a woman?" she repeated, entirely avoiding the fact that he was right. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Women are nosy." He shrugged, as if he'd said nothing more insulting than women have hair. "They poke. They pry. They get into the crevices of a guy's life where they don't belong, and then, before you know it, poof, the poor guy doesn't have any secrets, he's married, he's got two kids and an SUV, and his whole life is tied to a three-bedroom, two-bath house in Valencia with a mortgage he can't afford and a lawn he has to mow." He leaned forward, propping his chin on his clasped hands. "And the worst of it? He's not even getting laid anymore."
"No? Then how'd he get the two kids?"
David waved his hand in the air, shooing away her words. "Hell, he probably begged for it. Not my point. My point is -- "
"That you're a chauvinistic, Neanderthal prick that no right-thinking woman would want to share a mortgage with?"
"No." He matched her gaze head-on, apparently not the least bit perturbed by her insult. "That you're not telling me everything you know about this guy. And I need that information. If you want me to find Mr. Wonderful, I need to know everything."
She licked her lips. Everything wasn't exactly her style. Heck, she'd only recently admitted out loud to her gynecologist that she had sex. And everything would require admitting to supremely sarcastic David Anderson that she'd run out on Al because she'd mistakenly confused him for a serial killer. A rather hefty social faux pas, but the mistake had made sense at the time.
And now that she knew he wasn't a killer, she wanted -- no, needed -- to find him again. To apologize. And to see if maybe, hopefully, they could pick up where they left off. But she really didn't want to explain all that to David.
"I take it you're not too keen on the everything plan?"
"What?" Blinking, she shook her head, trying to get her bearings.
"I said I needed to know everything and you suddenly went catatonic on me."
"I went catatonic?" He's the one who'd totally spaced out on her earlier. "Hardly." She lifted her chin. "I was thinking."
"Thinking about telling me?"
"There's nothing to tell." She pointed toward the desk. "You've got his name. His picture. What more do you need?"
The second the question was out of her mouth, she knew she shouldn't have asked it. Of course he'd want more info. It made sense, really. She'd just hoped to avoid that part of it. It all seemed so personal somehow.
"Information would be good." He sighed, the irritated look on his face fading to one of understanding. Or maybe frustration. She really didn't know him well enough to read his moods.
He surprised her by pushing his chair back, then getting up and coming around the desk. He leaned up against it, right in front of her, with nothing but a few cubic feet of air separating them, and she suddenly realized that she had to concentrate on breathing.
He was bigger than she'd realized. She'd seen him when he'd let her in, of course, but she'd been so annoyed she hadn't really paid attention. And after he'd sat down, she'd noticed his broad shoulders, but she hadn't gotten the full impact until he stood up. Now that she had the complete picture, she had to admit that, obnoxious or not, the man was incredibly good looking. Big, but not one of those Herculean guys whose biceps were the size of her thigh. The angles of his face were hard, chiseled, but with his dimpled smile, she could picture him snuggling close with a woman, or even playing with a baby.
She could also imagine him beating the crap out of the bad guys and, considering his line of work, that had to be a good thing.
With one hand, he flipped a chair around and straddled it, facing her. "Look, think of me as your priest. Or your lawyer. Or your doctor. Take your pick."
She shook her head, totally clueless.
"My point is, you tell me, it doesn't go any further. And believe me, I've heard it all."
Fine. Okay. She could do this. As much as she hated talking about personal stuff, what he said made sense. And it wasn't like she had to tell him everything. She just had to tell him enough.
She pulled in a deep breath, exhaled, and then started blabbing. "We met at the beach."
She quelled a flash of irritation from the interruption. "About four months ago. I'd gone down to San Diego for an artists' convention and I decided to splurge and stay at the conference hotel instead of driving back and forth." It had been a huge splurge, actually, but she was already eighteen months behind schedule, and she'd considered the conference a last shot at making it with her art. She'd needed the opportunity more than she'd wanted her savings account.
"What hotel?" He had a pad out and was taking notes.
"The Monteleone," she said. "I'd gone to show my portfolio around."
"You're an artist?"
"A collagist," she said. "Or I used to be."
"Of course you were," he said, giving her the blank look she'd gotten used to.
"It means I take snapshots and drawings and paint and whatever other media I find appealing and mix it all together to make a statement."
"Oh, right. I've done that."
She tilted her head. "You have?"
"Yeah," he said. "In kindergarten."
She just stared at him.
"Sorry. My mouth gets away from me. I'm sure your collages are beautiful." He actually sounded like he meant it, but Jacey knew that had to be a ruse. So far, David Anderson was proving to be both a flake and a bit of a jerk. "So why aren't you a collagist anymore?" he asked, pronouncing the word slowly and clearly.
She licked her lips, not really wanting to talk about it, and shrugged. "I have a degree in accounting and I'm almost thirty. It was time to quit fooling around."
"Uh-huh." David didn't look too impressed that she'd sacrificed her artistic soul for a computer spreadsheet. "So," he said, "back when you were irresponsible, you took a snapshot of Al."
"Right." She'd actually taken that picture before she and Al had met. She'd been photographing the wave pattern on the beach from the balcony of her room, and had happened to catch him in the background. After she and Al hooked up, photography was the last thing on her mind. Not that she intended to share that little tidbit with David.
"Okay. Go on."
"Well, the conference ended on a Wednesday, but I decided to stay. I'd always wanted to do that, you know? Stay in a really nice hotel on the beach and order room service and just lie around. And I had the conference rate through Sunday, so I figured why not."
"Sure. Then what?"
"I was in the bar one night and I met Al." That was more or less the way it had happened. And it was surely all David needed to know.
"And you hit it off."
"And then what?"
"Well..." Again, her cheeks burned. "You know."
"You spent the weekend doing the nasty, parted ways, you gave birth to his kid, and now you're trying to track down Daddy."
"Are you insane? I am not anyone's mom." Not yet, and certainly not like that.
He cocked his head, clearly examining her. "Yeah, and it was only four months ago. You don't look preggers from here." He shrugged. "Not that I'd be able to tell in that dress."
She sucked in her cheeks, a handy technique for keeping control of her tongue. Otherwise she might let him know -- in small, easy-to-understand sentences -- just how much of a jerk he was. But if she did that, she'd have to find another PI. And as far as she could tell, no one within a hundred-mile radius was as cheap as David Anderson.
"Well?" he prompted. "A hot time but no kid, or what?"
"We had a very nice time," she said. If he wanted to interpret that as a weekend of wild sex, then so be it.
"Uh-huh," he said, his slow gaze burning a path down her body. "Like I said -- a very hot time."
She sat up straighter, ignoring his innuendoes even as she tried to ignore the way she shivered under his uncompromising appraisal. "It was a very...uh, pleasant...weekend," she said. "But we lost track of each other."
"Why'd you lose track? I mean, if I'm having a hot time with a hot woman, I'm going to know how to get in touch with her."
Yes, she imagined he would. "There was a miscommunication," she said, banishing thoughts of David and hot time.
He raised an eyebrow. "A miscommunication?" he repeated, his voice rising. "What the hell does that mean?"
"It means it's none of your business." She lifted her chin, hoping she looked superior instead of defensive. "The point is, I don't know how to find him to apologize. That's why I'm here." She crossed her arms over her chest. "With you."
"Gotcha." He picked up a pencil and started tapping away at his desktop. "So let's see if I've picked up on all the salient points. You had a hot time on the beach with a guy you barely knew, who you haven't seen again, and now you're trying to track him down because he made such a huge impact on your life."
"You think I'm crazy, don't you?" Heck, part of her thought she was crazy. Especially when he put it that way. Except she knew she wasn't. In a moment of pure foolishness, she'd run away. Now she needed to find him, apologize, and find out if they still had a chance.
"Sweetheart, it's not my place to say whether you're nuts or not." He nodded toward her purse. "All I care about is that you keep my checks coming. You do that and I'll search for our boy Al for as long as you want." He aimed an intense look in her direction. "If that's what you want."
"Of course it's what I want." She tilted her chin up.
"In that case," he said with a grin, "I think this is the start of a beautiful friendship."
In Al's opinion, the little diner on the outskirts of San Diego had only two things going for it, and the quality of the food wasn't on his list. No, the diner would never make the Zagat Survey, but it did have big windows, so he could keep an eye on the parking lot. Plus, it was walking distance from a no-tell motel. Not that Al particularly wanted to spend the night in such a rattrap, but he didn't have the cash for four stars. Hell, right then he couldn't even afford three stars.
He had to laugh at the irony. Four months ago he'd been sitting pretty, and now he was flat broke, with only the contents of his wallet, a pair of khakis, a Perry Ellis shirt, one Armani suit, and a counterfeit Rolex he'd picked up in Mexico City. Not exactly the life he'd planned.
A car pulled into one of the spaces in front of the diner, and Al slunk down in his seat, even though he was certain Joey couldn't have found him so fast. His fingers tightened around his battered copy of The Firm as he tried to get a glimpse of the driver through the glare on the windshield. The door opened, and a college-age girl in a bikini top and cut-off shorts slid out, a tiny purse swinging from her shoulder. His shoulders sagged with relief. Nobody.
He exhaled. Once more, he'd beaten the devil. He ran his fingers through his hair, idly wondering when his luck would run out.
"You doing okay on coffee, Al?" Doris stopped in front of his table, her overly bleached hair piled high.
"I'm doing fine." He aimed his most winning smile at her. Showtime. If he nailed this performance, he might just have a free place to hole up for the night. "Even better now that you're back."
"Really?" Splotches of red mottled Doris's cheeks, and she stood up a little straighter, the seams of her too-tight uniform straining.
He nodded. "In fact," he said, boldly taking her hand and squeezing, "I was hoping we could spend the evening together. Some wine, some crackers..." He trailed off, letting Doris draw her own conclusions.
"Well, I just don't...I mean, I..."
"I hope you don't think I'm too bold. But, well, talking to you...I felt a connection. I thought you'd felt it, too."
She giggled, her face scrunching up. "Well, sure I did." She took a deep breath and he knew he'd won. Hell, where women were concerned, he always won. "I get off in an hour."
"Wonderful." He slid to the edge of the booth. "I'm just going to go over to the convenience store and pick up a few things. I'll be back by the time your shift is over."
She aimed a google-eyed smile his way as he slipped out the door into the perfect California weather. Darling Doris wasn't one he'd leave the light on with, but she'd do in a pinch. Right now, all that mattered was that he had a free bed for the night. And, if he worked it right, a ride into Los Angeles tomorrow.
A few cars he hadn't seen before were parked in front of the store and he realized they must have pulled in off the little dirt road that ran parallel to the freeway. He hesitated, telling himself he was being stupid. He hadn't even been in the country for twenty-four hours. Joey couldn't possibly know he was back.
Still a little apprehensive, he trudged across the parking lot, hoping the men's room had a condom dispenser. He had no intention of going to the cash register where he might get caught on the video surveillance. He was, after all, a dead man.
The antiseptic smell of bleach assaulted him as soon as he pushed open the door. He fought a gag reflex, sure that the smell was only hiding the germs, not actually killing them. He grabbed a paper towel from the dispenser, then headed for the condom machine, using the towel instead of his fingers to operate the mechanism. He selected the extra-large ribbed version, then tucked it into his pocket when the foil coin popped out of the machine. After a second's hesitation, he repeated the process, then wondered if he ought to buy a third.
"Well, well, well..." The deep voice rolled over Al, echoing through the tiled room. "Just the man I've been looking for."
A cold shiver, like the finger of grim death, snaked down between Al's shoulder blades and he turned from the dispenser to face Reggie Barton, Joey Malone's number one attack dog. Weighing in at over two hundred and fifty pounds, Reggie vaguely resembled Paul Bunyan, without the friendly blue ox.
A grin slithered across Reggie's face, the four-inch-long scar on his cheek twisting and bulging. A souvenir from some fight Reggie had surely won. Because Reggie always won. Malone wouldn't have it any other way.
"Malone's missed you, Al." Reggie's lips flared back, exposing his yellowed teeth in an expression Al assumed was supposed to be a smile. "Or is your name Charles now?"
Al cringed, not sure why he should be surprised that Reggie knew about his fake name. Hell, Joey Malone had eyes everywhere. He'd found him here, hadn't he?
"How'd you find me?" Al asked, unable to fight the instinct to just keep Reggie talking. If Reggie was talking, he wasn't pounding Al to a bloody pulp.
"Joey's got friends everywhere," Reggie said. "You should know that." Again, he flashed that snaggle-toothed grin. "Hell, Joey's even got Border Patrol agents on his payroll. You hitch a ride over the border, Al old buddy, and somebody just might recognize you."
Oh God, he should have known. Al had thought he'd been so clever, hitching a ride with the truck driver hauling a load of fruit into the States, sure that there was no way that Joey Malone would know he'd come back in the country. But he hadn't been clever; he'd been stupid. And now he might really end up dead.
The shiver was back, deep in his blood and uncontrollable, and Al only hoped that before this nightmare was over he wouldn't pee his pants. Digging down, he found some remnant of courage -- the same fire in his belly that had given him the guts to run in the first place. Drawing on all his strength, he looked Reggie in the eye. He still trembled, but maybe -- maybe -- it was disguised. "What's Joey want with me, Reggie?" The thug wasn't too bright. Maybe if Al played innocent...
"I think you know."
He held out his hands, palms up, in a gesture of surrender. "You got me. I don't know. Honest."
"Where's the stuff?"
If that wasn't the question of the hour...He shook his head. "I don't have it." That, at least, was the God's honest truth. He'd stashed it in the girl's car, planning to have an all-night bang-a-thon with the lovely Jude, then he'd get up before dawn and drive her precious Volkswagen over the border. He'd never imagined that she'd run out on him.
"You stole from Joey Malone," Reggie said, flipping open a pocketknife.
Al swallowed, his knees turning liquid, and he grabbed onto the condom dispenser for balance.
"Joey don't take kindly to that kind of double-cross," Reggie added, then started cleaning under his fingernails with the blade.
"No way," Al lied, his eyes never leaving the blade. "I don't have a death wish. I'd never cross Joey Malone." Now he wouldn't. Four months ago he'd been desperate and naive. Hopefully, that was a character flaw he'd live through.
"Joey don't believe you."
"I can't help that, Reg. I can't give you what I don't have. And I don't have anything."
Reggie twisted the knife in his hand. "Who's the bitch?"
Al blinked. "What? Who?"
"The chickie you picked up in the hotel last spring. The redhead." He tapped his scalp with the tip of the blade. "You were clever, but I been asking around. One of the maids saw you with some bimbo. What about it, Al? Does she have Joey's stuff?"
"Of course not," Al said, hoping his voice sounded normal.
"What's her name?" Reggie asked.
"Jude." Al swallowed. "Jude Wilde." Lying would only get him dead that much faster. He looked up at Reggie. "But she's not involved. She was just a weekend fuck. That's all."
"Maybe," Reggie said. He snapped the knife shut. "And maybe not. If I find out different, you're gonna be one sorry son of a bitch."
Al exhaled. Hell, he already was.
Reggie slid the knife into his back pocket. "You shoulda stayed missing," he said.
At the moment, Al was inclined to agree. The minute he'd realized that Jude had split, he had, too, taking only what he had in his wallet. But fifty thou only goes so far. All he had left was five hundreds, a fifty, three tens, and a smattering of ones.
He'd come back to get the diamonds. He'd hoped to get in, get the goods, and get out before Malone realized he'd come back across the border. So much for the best laid plans. He sucked in air. "Listen, Reggie, I don't know how to make it any plainer. I don't have Joey's jewels. The girl doesn't have Joey's jewels. I don't know where they are."
"Joey don't buy that." The hulk took a step closer and Al froze, his stomach tightening with terror. He didn't mind violence so much, except when it was perpetrated against him.
"But Joey also said to tell you he's not such a bad guy," Reggie said. "He's gonna give you another chance."
"Another chance?" Al repeated stupidly.
"You get him what you took and he'll let you live." The scar stretched, the reddish tissue turning white as it pulled tight against Reggie's face. "Otherwise, he'll see that Charles Lafontaine ain't long for this world. And Albert Alcott won't be doing too good, neither. You understand?"
"Yes," Al said, his voice cracking.
"Good. 'Cause I'll be watching." Reggie turned to leave as Al started to breathe again. "Oh," Reggie added, turning back around. "And here's something Joey wanted me to give you. A little incentive not to let him down, he said."
Al knew what was coming and didn't even have time to flinch. Reggie's fist shot out and all Al knew was a seering pain in his jaw and one thought in his head -- If Jude didn't still have those diamonds, he was a dead man.
After that, the world went black.
Copyright © 2003 by Julia Kenner