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Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Brash Blonde - Chapter Eighteen



I didn't know a whole lot about guns, but it was small, black, and looked like it shot real bullets and could do plenty of damage. More damage than I wanted to think about. I'd never had a gun pointed at me before, unless you counted a water pistol. Adrenalin was coursing through my body by the gallon, rocketing me into fight-or-flight mode. Sadly, flight wasn't an option at the moment. So I had to find a way to either deflect bullets or divert his attention.

I opted to divert his attention through scintillating conversation.

"Hello," I said.

He didn't seem impressed. To be fair, it wasn't my strongest effort.

"I didn't hear the doorbell," I added, like I didn't even notice the gun. Hard not to notice the gun. Especially since he held it so calmly and steadily, as if he did it every day of his life. The least he could do was show a little hesitation. Or remorse. Remorse would be good. I could negotiate with remorse. I couldn't handle implacability. Or dying.

"I didn't ring the doorbell," he said. "I didn't see the need. You might not have let me in. And I wanted to come in." His gaze dropped to the documents in my hand. "I see you've saved me the effort of searching for those once again." He smirked and snatched them out of my hands. "I'll take that now, thank you."

I stared up at him, wondering how I could have ever seen him as benign and pleasant when in reality he was nothing but a fat little criminal with an overbite.

"You know," he said, "my wife was supposed to find this when she helped clear out this dump. She would have destroyed it, and the world would continue to think the old battle-ax had had a heart attack." He did a sad little headshake. "You should have let her help you, and none of this would be necessary."

"It's not necessary now," I said. My gaze slid off to the side, searching for a weapon of some sort. I'd done a pretty good job of straightening up. Why was I such a neat freak? If I'd left things the way they were, I'd have had lots of potential weapons to defend myself. At the moment, I had a box of newspapers, a raggedy area rug, and some sofa cushions. Not much help there. Unless I found a loaded gun in between the sofa cushions, I was going to need to go to plan B.

Ignorance.

"Those papers don't mean anything to me." I flapped my hand at it. "Go on and take them. In fact, take the whole box."

He gave a nasty little chuckle. "You're not a very good liar."

Just when I'd been patting myself on the back for pulling off the detective thing.

"So you brought a few statues into the country," I said. "Big deal. Rules are made to be broken, right? You know, my next-door neighbor growing up bought a trunkful of fireworks when he went out of state for his cousin's funeral. I never said a word. He gave me a sparkler, and I kept my mouth shut." I snapped my fingers. "How about you give me one of your statues, and we call it even? I'm a big art fan."

"I'm afraid I can't do that," he said. "Every one of those little beauties is earmarked for a very special client."

My imagination took off wondering what sort of special clients he catered to. Ones who didn't care about little things like legal channels and endangered species. Maybe even criminals themselves. Criminals with guns. Like the one pointed at me now.

"I can see you're wondering what this is all about," he said.

He was wrong. I was wondering why I hadn't stayed at Irene's, lounging by the pool, drinking mimosas, waiting for the pizza delivery person. Why on earth had I thought that daylight would mean safety? I was still alone, wasn't I? I cocked my ear toward the ceiling, hoping to hear footsteps upstairs. Nothing. Ironic, considering I'd huddled in bed up there hoping to not hear footsteps. What a lousy time to get my wish.

I let my gaze slide to the other side of the room. More boxes. The rolltop desk. A torchiere light. That had possibilities.

"It was kind of funny, really," Louis Chu went on, without so much as a tee-hee. "Those papers you found were mistakenly delivered to this address. An honest mistake—one that's happened a time or two."

I thought of Lucy Chu and her rail against misdelivered mail. Why couldn't the stupid mailman have misdelivered a Pier 1 Imports catalog?

"Unfortunately," he said, "Kate was always nosey. She didn't much like me. To be honest, she may have suspected something from the day we moved in. But when Kate opened this, she realized she had the proof she needed to put me away." He shrugged. "I didn't have much of a choice, did I?"

"Of course you did!" I snapped. "You could have persuaded her to keep her mouth shut about it without killing her."

He looked at me. "You're kidding, right?"

Good point. After complaint letters about everything from newspaper delivery to noise in the park, I couldn't imagine Kate letting a crate full of illegally imported art slide.

"Wait—if this was such a smoking gun, how come customs didn't notice it?" I asked.

Louis grinned. "You see, I'm a businessman," he said. "And like any good businessman, sometimes you have to grease the wheels of bureaucracy to get things done."

"You mean you paid someone off?"

"I might have certain friends among the customs officers at the port of San Francisco. Of course, those friendships only go as far as turning an occasional blind eye to minor weight discrepancies. I would have been in serious trouble if your aunt had followed through on her threat to report us to the FBI and CBP and ICE and any other collection of letters she could think of."

Kate and her complaints. She couldn't have looked the other way just once?

Wait.

"Us?" I repeated. "You mean you and your wife?"

"Lucy?" He let out a husky ha-ha. Sure, that he found funny. "Certainly not. I mean my partner, Albert Fong. What do you think we discussed over chess every day?"

Aha! I knew Albert was in on it.

His mouth twisted. "At least, Albert was my partner. He wanted out. Why would you want out of millions of dollars a year?"

My guess was that Albert Fong had developed a conscience and realized he was living off blood money. Go figure—Mr. Happy was the sane one.

I glanced at the end table to my left. Table lamp. Remote control. A Time magazine with a story about Jackie Kennedy I'd been meaning to read. The music box with the ballerina en pointe, waiting for her music to begin.

"I'll tell you why," Chu said. "Kate was asking too many questions, even before she saw this." He flapped the packing slip at me. "She was a nosy old broad, and she suspected something. That made Albert nervous. And then one day he tells me he wants to retire. Said he didn't want to be involved with these kinds of people anymore." He snorted. "Albert always was the skittish type."

He seemed more like the antisocial type to me.

"That's not necessarily a bad thing," I told him. "His retirement must have meant more money for you."

"Sure," he said. "But without Albert's shops, how was I going to launder the money I made? And what was to keep Albert's sudden conscience from growing large enough to go to the police? That was a risk. Risk is not a good thing in my business."

Or in the phony detective business. After all, that was what had led me straight into the risk I was facing right now. I should have taken Irene's advice and sold this place. Let Lucy Chu clean it out, take back her lousy documents, plant a For Sale sign on the lawn, and sell it as is, psychotic next-door neighbors and all. Let someone else deal with misdelivered mail and criminal activity in the park. I'd stay safe and sound in my apartment with 2B across the hall and Mr. Bitterman and his boiled cabbage next door. I could live with that.

I couldn't live with Louis Chu.

"So you killed my aunt?" I asked, not really wanting to hear the details as much as stall for time.

Louis shrugged nonchalantly as if I'd accused him of jaywalking. "It had to be done. She was going to take this to the authorities, and I couldn't let that happen."

"You poisoned her."

"I told her I wanted to make a deal. That I'd agree to turn myself in to save Lucy the pain of a public arrest. Kate believed me, and we drank to the arrangement."

"Red wine?" I said, remembering the autopsy results.

"It was easy enough to lace her drink with enough monkshood to induce a cardiac arrest."

"Monkshood from Albert's shop?"

His eyes met mine with surprise. At least I'd had that part of the equation right.

"Yes. It only took a small amount really. A teaspoon or so. Hardly noticeable." For the first time he looked like he might have the slightest bit of remorse. "Poor thing. By the time she started feeling the effects, I was long gone, and it was too late for her."

I felt tears prick the back of my eyelids, imagining Kate dying alone as she realized she'd been duped.

"And I'm afraid it's also too late for you," he said, all traces of remorse replaced just that quickly with a cold, steely eyed gaze. "Like Kate, you represent risk. You should have kept your nose out of other people's business, but you just couldn't do that."

"I can do it now," I said. "I'll sell this place. You could buy it as your headquarters or something. I'll even throw in the appliances and the drapes. I mean, they're from the 1960s, but it can't be that hard to impress criminals, right?"

He stared at me.

"Then I'll just go away quietly," I added.

"You'll do that anyway," he said. "I'll help you."

He raised the gun.

It was now or never. I dove for the end table, snatching up the music box in one hand and hurling it toward his head with a velocity that would have impressed a baseball talent scout. It smashed into his jaw and ricocheted off, landing on the floor at his feet.

He glanced down at it in speechless disbelief, his hand going to his jaw. I could hardly believe it myself. I usually went down and in.

I took advantage of his hesitation and grabbed up the table lamp, swinging it as if I was teeing off like I'd seen the Stanford golf team do countless times, torquing my hips to get every bit of energy into it. The lamp caught him under the chin and sent him stumbling backwards. He crashed into a stack of boxes and went down when they gave way. The gun went off when he landed, and a puff of plaster drifted down from the ceiling.

While he was struggling to get back on his feet, I thrust my arm into the paper sack of canned goods near the rolltop desk. None of those tiny cans of corn or peas for Kate. She must have hit a Costco sale, because she'd gone for the large ones that would leave a bruise. And I meant to leave a bruise. I threw them as hard as I could, one at a time, hoping to make him drop the gun while he fended them off. A few went wild, but more than a few found their mark on his legs and belly and chest.

A can of green beans clocked him on the skull, opening a gash. He yelped and grabbed for his head.

And dropped the gun.

Which gave me the chance to go for the torchiere lamp. It was heavier than it looked, but adrenaline was giving me strength I hadn't expected. I got a good grip on it and rushed him, using it as a spear. The lamp rammed into his chest, pushing him back onto the floor. A trickle of blood ran down his forehead. He looked stunned and confused. He hadn't expected a fight, but that was exactly what I planned to give him. To the death, if necessary.

His.

He grabbed the end of the lamp and jerked it to loosen my grip, but the gun was still too close to him to give up the only weapon I had. I couldn't reach that gun before he could. So I held on while the lamp seesawed back and forth between us.

He snarled at me. That sound alone was so disconcerting I nearly dropped the torchiere. This time he was the one to take advantage of the hesitation, wrenching it from my hands and tossing it aside as if it weighed no more than a piece of bamboo.

His fingers closed around the gun.

Wildly, I looked side to side in a frantic search for another weapon. No more groceries within reach.

He brought the gun up and pointed it at my chest.

I closed my eyes.

The room exploded with gunfire, and I heard a grunt and a crash.

My eyes flew open. Louis Chu was lying facedown on my shabby area rug.

Beyond him, still in a shooting stance, was Detective Lestrade.

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