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A Sip Before Dying - Chapter Ten



Ava ordered a pizza, and I tried to choke down the cardboard consistency and make small talk with Jenny, all the while envisioning myself in prison orange for breaking and entering. Though, really, we wouldn't be breaking into anything—Ava's plan was to walk right in the front doors of Price Digital as if we had every right to be there. According to Jenny, there was no security guard on site after dark. There really wasn't much need for one, all of the company's real assets being digital. Jenny said they had a cyber security firm monitoring the company's computers for any threat or hackers 24/7. Luckily, we had no intention of digitally hacking anything—even if I'd had the slightest idea how. What we were looking for would hopefully be hiding in plain sight. Or at least plain enough for us to find before someone else found us snooping.

We watched a couple of Netflix shows, listened to Jenny reminisce about Chas as a kid, dried a few more of her tears. Then Ava settled her into the guest room with a story about needing to go check something at the winery with me. We both slipped out around eleven and headed to Ava's GTO—me feeling like a jittery thief and Ava's eyes shining with excitement like a kid on Christmas.

"Why do I get the feeling you're enjoying this?" I asked.

Ava grinned. "What? You can't tell me this isn't just a little bit fun playing Cagney and Lacey?"

"More like Lucy and Ethel," I mumbled.

"What was that?"

"Nothing!"

We rode the rest of the way in silence, and about an hour later pulled up in front of a sleek modern building in the Financial District of San Francisco. Ava circled the block, pulling into the underground parking garage in the rear, and I hoped that if the cameras mounted at the lift gates recorded us, no one would have a reason to check the footage for two blondes in a muscle car.

Ava led the way into the main lobby of the building, which, as she had promised, was unlocked and as well-lit as it would have been at noon, never mind that it was nearing midnight. New York might be the city that never sleeps, but San Francisco was home to the coders who hit their stride around 1:00 a.m. and seemed to need actual sunshine about as much as a vampire.

The large reception desk on the main floor was empty, but a couple of guys in jeans and hoodies stood near it, coffee cups in hands, chatting about something that was interesting enough that they barely looked up when we entered and crossed to the elevators. I felt my palms getting clammy as we rode up to the sixth floor, which was, as described, largely abandoned.

The fluorescent lights were off here, a concession to saving energy in the wee hours, though I could detect the mild hum of computers left on overnight. Our footsteps echoed eerily in the cavernous room, broken up only by rows of cubicles that hulked like dark shadows in the dim lighting. The scents of coffee and toner hung heavy in the air as Ava grabbed my arm.

"Come on," Ava said, steering me toward a row of glass-walled offices lining the back of the room. Thankfully, each was labeled with a bold black nameplate on the white lacquered doors. We passed by Sadie Evans' office—empty—and a couple of others before hitting the second to last on the row, labeled Chas Pennington.

I did a totally unnecessary over the shoulder, feeling guilt manifest as anxiety in my gut. Ava reached out for the door handle and turned.

Only it didn't budge.

"It's locked," she said.

"What do you mean locked?" I whispered. Totally unnecessary as well, since we were the only people I'd seen on the entire floor.

Ava shrugged. "Locked."

"I thought Jenny said the doors were unlocked at night."

"The doors to the building," Ava clarified. "I didn't ask her about Chas's private office."

Great. We'd driven all the way into the city and spiked my blood pressure a good twenty points for nothing. "So now what?" I asked.

Ava glanced around herself at the empty cubes. "Give me a minute," she said, disappearing into one.

"What are you doing?" I asked, following a step behind her.

I found her rummaging through a desk drawer, using her phone as a flashlight.

"Ava, that's someone's desk!" My gaze whipped around the room again, sure security guards were about to pop out and demand we unhand the stapler.

"Relax," she told me, closing it and opening the next one. "I'm just going to borrow something."

"What?" I asked, rubbing my sweaty palms on my jeans. I was anything but relaxed.

She straightened up, a look of triumph on her face. "This." She held a paperclip out.

"What is that for?"

She shot me a well, duh look. "To pick the lock."

I had to ask. I glanced around again, suddenly feeling extremely exposed as Ava headed back to Chas's door. I followed a step behind again, halfway hoping this failed and we could go home and halfway hoping it worked so we wouldn't be standing here in plain view of anyone who chanced to ride the elevators to the sixth floor.

Ava inserted the paperclip into the keyhole and wiggled it back and forth.

"How do you know how to pick a lock?"

"I don't," she confessed. "But this is what they did on Castle last week."

"Wasn't that show canceled?"

"Yes, but not because of a lack of realistic PI skills," she told me sagely.

I barely resisted the urge to roll my eyes. Okay, maybe I didn't resist. But in the dark, I didn't think Ava saw me.

"I saw that," she mumbled, the tip of her tongue poking out the corner of her mouth as she concentrated on the lock.

"Are you sure about this?" I asked. "What if we get caught? What if the cameras are watching? What if we damage the door?'

"Geez, you're tightly wound."

I shot her a look. "Only when committing minor felonies."

Ava's turn to roll her eyes. "Calm down, will you? This is misdemeanor at best."

I opened my mouth to tell her there was nothing "at best" about a misdemeanor, when I heard a soft click and the doorknob in her hand turned.

Ava looked about as surprised as I felt, her eyes going from me to the door. "Huh. It worked."

"Let's go, Cagney," I said, ushering her inside as quickly as I could. The less time we stood out on the open floor, the better.

With the door safely closed behind us, Ava flipped on the light, and I took a moment to survey the surroundings. One thing I could say, Chas hadn't skimped on his office amenities. While he might not have done much more than be a pretty face to brighten Vivienne's workday, his office was well appointed with everything the wealthy and pretending-to-work could want. A full bar sat along one wall, under framed photos of Chas golfing, skiing, yachting, and generally enjoying the spoils of his wife's labor. An oversized wooden desk sat on the opposite wall, the top of it cleared of any papers and gleaming as if seldom used. A pair of file cabinets sat behind it, along with a bookshelf that housed several leather-bound volumes, none looking as if they were ever read. A large leather chair sat behind the desk, which faced a window overlooking the twinkling lights of the city.

Beside the bar was a long, low sofa, which was the one thing in the room that looked like it had gotten plenty of use, the cushions indented in all the right places. I wondered if Sadie was the only woman Chas had been getting caught up with at work.

I noticed several wires coming out of the wall and empty shelving to the right of the desk, where electronics might have sat. Grant had already been there and had taken the computer with him. The detective was thorough.

"Let's hope Chas was old school when it came to record keeping," Ava said, her gaze landing on the same empty spot in the room that mine had.

I nodded. "You take the filing cabinets. I'll take the desk."

Ava started on the paper files, working in total silence, while I looked through the desk drawers. Nothing much there, apart from the usual office flotsam, a couple sticks of gum, and an old copy of Playboy. Ick.

"Anything?" I asked Ava, starting to feel antsy. I wasn't sure how long we'd been in Chas's office, but it felt like an eternity, each minute that ticked by pushing us one step closer to being found.

Ava shook her head. "Mostly old accounting files. Lots of expense receipts."

I moved beside her to look at some. She wasn't kidding when she said there were a lot. Chas had expensed everything from Cuban cigars to $400 sneakers to company accounts. Not only was Chas running through Vivienne's funds, but he was apparently playing fast and loose with corporate ones as well. I wondered if Vivienne knew. Or Sadie, for that matter. Maybe she hadn't so much tired of her Greek god's complications as his spending habits.

"I'll look through the bookcase," Ava said, leaving me with the receipts.

I browsed through several more files, finding my opinion of Chas going downhill with each one. If Chas did anything at Price Digital other than spend money, it wasn't evident in his files. In fact, what was evident was that someone in accounting had begun to notice the spending too. I found several expense reimbursement requests marked as denied. Someone had been tightening the purse strings.

"Whoa."

I looked up to find Ava holding one of the leather-bound books in her hands.

"What?" I asked.

"I found Chas's secret stash."

I crossed the room to look at the book she was holding. Though, upon closer inspection, it wasn't a useable book at all. Someone had hollowed it out, creating a hiding space inside. One that was filled with a small baggie of white powder.

I blinked at it. "What is that?"

Ava shrugged. "I'm guessing it's not baby powder."

"Cocaine?"

"No idea." She moved to pick up the baggie.

"Wait!" I put a hand on her arm to stop her.

She froze.

"Don't get your prints on it."

Ava carefully closed the book back up and wiped the cover of it with the hem of her shirt.

"If Grant didn't find this the first time, we don't want our prints on it when he comes back."

She nodded and slowly put the book back on the shelf. I noticed the title on the spine: The Call of the Wild. Chas had had a sense of humor.

An idea struck me, and I looked over the other titles on the shelf, my eyes falling on a copy of The Black Sheep.

I pulled the sleeve of my shirt over my hand and reached for the book. I gingerly opened it…

Bingo.

It, too, was hollowed out. And inside was a small black notebook.

Ava's eyes lit up. "Is that what I think it is?'

I pulled the notebook out, hands still wrapped in my sleeve, and flipped through the pages. Dates. Initials. Dollar amounts. "I think it is."

Ava did a little victory dance, lifting her feet up and down in a jogging motion. "Ohmigod, we actually found it!"

While I was dancing with her on the inside, I still felt like we were on borrowed time. I quickly flipped to the last couple of pages. Dates from the last three months. No names, unfortunately, just initials. But it was a start. I pulled my phone out and took a photo, hoping to compare the initials to our guest list from the Spanish party.

I thumbed back through the last six months' worth of dates, skimming the pages. There seemed to be at least four entries for every date—which I assumed corresponded to the players at each of Chas's games. The sums were staggering, some ranging in the five figures. It was hard to tell exactly what they corresponded to—winnings or losings—but I took photos of several more pages, hoping to figure out Chas's system in the privacy and safety of Ava's loft later.

I was just photographing the last page, when one of the sets of initials caught my eyes. D.A. While it could have stood for almost anything, I immediately thought of the name David Allen. I scrolled back further, checking for any other entries. For almost every date of a game, there was some entry for D.A. I felt my stomach lifting, puzzle pieces falling into place. David Allen had not only known about his stepfather's illegal poker games, but he'd also been gambling at them. Maybe losing? I checked the last entry for the D.A. initials. The dollar amount listed next to it was thirty grand.

Was David losing enough to kill over?

I opened my mouth to tell Ava, but before I could do more than call her name, I heard the ping of the elevators.

Instinctively, I ducked down to the floor, using Chas's large desk as a shield. Ava did the same, dropping to the carpeted floor.

"I thought you said there were no security guards," I whispered to her.

Ava shrugged. "Jenny said there weren't."

I dared to peek around the corner of the wooden drawers as a flashlight beam cut through the darkness. I ducked back behind the desk, waiting until the beam swept to the other side of the sixth floor, to peek out again to get a look at the shadowed figure holding it. While the dim light made it difficult to make out facial features, I'd know those unmistakable black boots, tight jeans, and broad shoulders anywhere.

Detective Christopher Grant.

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