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Spying in High Heels - Chapter Nine



All I could do was stare. Damn, did this guy have a homing device or what?

Ramirez just smiled, casually depositing himself onto the stool beside me as the bartender slid him a bottle of Coors.

"Love the outfit," he said.

"Thanks." I tugged at the hem of my dress, suddenly very aware of my bunching grannies again.

His smiled widened, showing off that too-sexy dimple. "Something about a woman in spandex gets me all hot and bothered."

"You're mocking me aren't you?"

"Just a little."

"It's supposed to be a disguise."

"From whom?"

I paused. "No one."

"Hmm." He studied me, his hands idly picking up a swizzle straw from the bar and drawing little circles with it.

"What?" I asked.

"The wig is a nice touch."

"Real classy huh?"

"I think I prefer you as a blonde."

I hated that somewhere inside me a pleased little voice screamed, "He likes your hair!"

"So, what are you doing here?" I asked, squelching the little voice.

"Working." He fixed me the kind of stare Superman used when switching on his X-ray vision. "What are you doing here?"

I bit my lip. I wasn't sure how much to spill. Worse, I'd told so many versions of the truth lately, I wasn't entirely sure which version I'd last given Ramirez. But considering Greenway was likely on his way to County right now and Richard would be home soon, I figured I didn't have much to lose.

"I was looking for Greenway, but I got shot at, so I needed a drink."

Ramirez looked down at my Diet Coke and raised an eyebrow. Luckily he didn't say anything. I wasn't sure I could explain that on top of everything else.

"Okay," he said, shaking his head. "Because I like you and I've haven't got time to do all the paperwork, I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that shooting thing."

Did he just say he liked me? Damn, that little voice was perking up again.

"Look, Maddie," he continued, "this is a homicide. Bad men with big guns. This is not children's shoes. Don't you think maybe it's time you went home and let the big boys handle this?"

He had a point. I wasn't thrilled about the guys with guns. And getting shot at again was way, way low on my list of to-do's. I'd neglected the Strawberry Shortcake shoes, I'd dragged my best friend into the Valley, I'd very nearly gotten Althea fired, and I was in neon spandex of all things. And in all honesty, I had planned on finishing my drink, going straight home, and gluing my butt to my futon as I watched for any sign of Greenway's arrest on the news.

But the way Ramirez said "big boys" made my spine straighten, my jaw clench, and my eyes narrow into cat-like slits as I flipped my fake hair over one shoulder.

"Listen, 'big boy,' I may have ovaries, but I'm not going to just sit at home and knit while Richard is out there being hunted down by a killer. Even if he is married to Cinderella."

'Kay—not a good idea to spout off to a cop. Ramirez stared at me, pinning me with his best Bad Cop face. I said a silent prayer that he didn't reach for his cuffs. On any day, spending a night in a county cell wasn't my idea of a good time. And dressed like this, it would probably rank on the fun scale below wearing the Purple People Eater down a Milan runway.

Just as I was about to throw myself on the mercy of the law, Ramirez's eyes crinkled at the corners. His lip jerked up.

And then he laughed out loud.

It should have pissed me off, but instead I found my fighting stance fading. Man, he had a great laugh. It was rich and full and totally transformed his face. For a second I got a glimpse of the cover model he could have been in another life.

"Fine," he said, finally recovering. "I'll make you a deal." He leaned in close enough that I could smell his brand of soap. Ivory. I inhaled. I'd always liked that brand.

"What kind of deal?"

His eyes locked on mine, and in a voice that was way too intimate said, "You show me yours, and I'll show you mine."

Yikes. I hoped he was talking about the case. Okay, well I mostly hoped he was talking about the case. There was one teeny tiny little corner of my brain that flashed on Dana's animal sex phrase again.

"What do you want to know?" I squeaked out.

His gaze didn't waver. "Everything."

That covered a lot of ground. I decided to go for the CliffNotes version. "Okay. I was at Richard's office yesterday, and a call came in from Greenway. I traced the call to the Moonlight Inn, and my best friend, Dana, and I dressed as hookers to try to get Greenway's room number out of the night clerk. Only when we got to the room, someone shot at us, so we bolted."

Both Ramirez's eyebrows headed north this time.

"You traced the call?"

"Okay, I didn't so much trace it as I bribed his receptionist with a manicure to look up the number for me."

"Jesus." He rolled his eyes.

"What?"

"You really are girly."

I narrowed my eyes at him. "Hey, it worked didn't it? I showed you mine, now show me yours. What are you doing here?"

Ramirez took another sip of his beer and looked at me. I feared he might renege on his deal.

"Okay. Someone called in an anonymous tip that Devon Greenway was staying at the Moonlight in North Hollywood. We traced the call to your cell number. And I mean traced, as in using technology, not manicures."

My turn to roll my eyes.

"So, I sent a couple uniforms to check it out. Imagine my surprise when on my way there, I spot your red Jeep parked on the street."

I ignored the sarcasm. "So, did they arrest Greenway?"

"No."

"What do you mean 'no'?!" My voice took on that high, screechy quality again as panic grabbed me by the hair and whipped my head around the room. Suddenly the safe anonymity of Mulligan's felt very much like a room full of strangers. Any one of which could be wielding a gun.

"I mean the motel room was empty. No one was there."

For the second time in as many days I willed myself not to hyperventilate. I wrapped my shaking hands around my glass and downed the last of my Diet Coke. Too quickly. It went down the wrong pipe, and I started to choke, quick unproductive coughs that sounded like a hyena in heat. Ramirez smacked me on the back, bringing tears to my eyes as I finally got ahold of myself.

Ramirez just shook his head at me, a little half smirk on his lips as he took another sip of his Coors.

"He was there," I said. "I swear he was there. He called from there yesterday. You can check the call log at Richard's office. We had a long conversation about how Richard calls me 'pumpkin.'"

"Pumpkin?" Ramirez smirked again.

"It's his pet name. I didn't pick it out."

"And 'pumpkin' was the best he could do?"

"It's cute!" In all honesty, I'd never really liked "pumpkin." It always reminded me of something my grandfather would call me. But I wasn't going to admit that to Ramirez.

"You're more like a fregadita, if you ask me."

"A what?"

Ramirez smiled. "You figure it out."

I think I hated him.

"You're sure Greenway's not at the motel?"

"If he was, he's gone now. And if he's smart, he's on a plane to the Caribbean. I've got a couple CSI going over the motel now just in case he left a calling card."

I bet my hook-nosed CSI Guy was having a field day lint rolling Metallica.

"You think they'll find anything?"

Ramirez shrugged. "My guess? He's long gone."

Great. Back to square one. Only now I felt this irrational need to look over my shoulder every three seconds for angry gunmen. And Richard was still out there somewhere. Still hiding. Still not returning my calls. Still married to Cinderella.

I seriously needed something stronger than Coke.

"So," Ramirez said, draining his Coors, "now that we're on the same page, it's time for you to go home."

"Will you tell me if they find anything at the motel?"

Ramirez's expression was suddenly serious. "Look, this is a murder investigation. It's not shoe shopping. Go home."

"But—" I opened my mouth to protest, but Ramirez cut me off, laying one hand over mine.

"I've already fished one woman's body out of a swimming pool. I don't want to make it two. Please. Go home."

I froze. Not so much from the warning, but the heat of Ramirez's hand over mine. I gulped, trying to tell myself I wasn't thirteen and this was not some hunky football player.

"I can't just forget about all this." I didn't add, "because I may be carrying his child."

Ramirez put on his Bad Cop face again, the softie side of him swallowed up just as quickly as it appeared. He shook his head at me and muttered something in Spanish before leaving to the tune of a little Asian woman in clogs singing the "Macarena."

Then he was gone.

I stared at my empty glass. It was good advice. Go home. He was right. I didn't know what I was doing. Maybe Greenway was on a plane to the Caribbean. But then again, maybe he wasn't. Maybe he was tracking Richard down right now, closing in on him, gun drawn, waiting to pounce. The heroic part of me that grew up wearing Wonder Woman Underoos wanted to grab my golden lasso and save Richard from possibly ending up face down in a crystal clear swimming pool. But the chicken-hearted part of me that had run like hell from room two-ten knew Ramirez was right. If I kept stumbling along, I might end up stumbling into the barrel of a gun. Was Richard even worth all this?

Last week it would have been a resounding, yes. Today, I was having serious doubts. While I couldn't ignore the Cinderella factor, I couldn't totally write Richard off without hearing his side of the story either. I mean, we'd been together for five months. Most of them really, really good. Okay, so we hadn't had that deep we're-spending-the-rest-of-our-lives-gazing-into-each-others'-eyes talk yet, but I did spend at least three nights a week at his place, and we had an understood Friday date-night exclusive.

So, the question was, what to do now? I jiggled the ice cubes in the bottom of my glass. I had no leads, no gun, no CSI guys of my own. I didn't even have a pocket-sized pepper spray.

But I did have one thing. A pregnancy test. And with my whole boyfriend status about as hazy as July in the Valley, the thought of facing a murderer was a whole lot less scary than the thought of facing a pink line.

So, I did the only thing I could. I threw a ten on the bar, grabbed my purse, and ran for my red Jeep before Ramirez got too far ahead of me.


* * *


I was the first to admit that the last time I'd tailed Ramirez hadn't exactly been a great success. I really didn't want to encounter any more dead bodies. So, I promised myself I'd stay in the car. But contrary to Ramirez's sexist ideas, I wasn't just going to wait around for things to get worse. And I had a bad feeling things were going to get worse before they got better. Sure it would be great if CSI Guy found a trail leading straight to Greenway, but I didn't think Greenway was that stupid. Or that I was that lucky.

So instead of sitting at home, watching the perky news reporters tell me the cops had no current leads, I was taking my fate into my own hands. I was being proactive. Yes, proactive. That sounded so much better than "interfering in an investigation." Besides, if I just stayed in the car, I wasn't really interfering at all. Just spying.

That and I had to admit I was still a little miffed about the girly comment. And what the hell was a fregadita?

I pulled back onto Van Nuys and caught up to Ramirez's black SUV at the next light. I stayed two cars behind in the next lane over, willing my Jeep to look small and unnoticeable. As expected, he took a right on Vanowen, heading in the direction of the motel. I let him pull ahead a few more car lengths, feeling reasonably confident I knew where he was going. I lost him as we drove under the 170, but as I slowly cruised past the Moonlight, I saw his SUV parked under that same scraggy palm my Jeep had been only an hour earlier.

I circled the motel and parked down the street under a streetlamp that was blinking its last dying bit of light. Even though it was still a balmy seventy-nine degrees out, I kept the windows rolled up and the doors locked. If the Moonlight had seemed creepy before, it was downright horror movie-ish now. I had visions of that scene from Urban Legend where the unsuspecting woman sits in her car while an ax murderer springs up from the back seat and slashes until the car fills with red dyed Karo syrup. I shivered. I wanted to keep all my syrup right where it was, thank you very much.

I squinted through the darkness as Ramirez got out of his SUV. There were two black and whites in the lot now, one officer talking into his car radio while the other swept a flashlight along the license plates of the other cars in the lot. Ramirez walked up to the cop with the flashlight, conversing for a moment with the uniform who kept gesturing up to room two-twelve.

I followed Ramirez's gaze up the stairs. The door to the room was open now, and I could see the light on. Forms outlined against the ratty curtains, presumably CSI Guy and his many little black bags. The half-dressed neighbors on either side of room two-ten had come out of their rooms, milling around the doorway like moths to a flame.

Ramirez left the uniform and took the stairs two at a time, making long, purposeful strides to Greenway's room. He disappeared inside for a minute then quickly reemerged. He went back down the stairs and crossed the cracked blacktop to the office. I allowed myself a little smirk at the thought of Metallica cowering under Ramirez's evil eye.

Five minutes later Ramirez emerged from the office and got back into his SUV. The lights turned on, and he backed out of the lot, pointing his car down Lankershim in the direction of the freeway. I made myself count to three Mississippi before chasing after him.

More than likely he was just going back to the police station. But, on the off chance Metallica had shared intimate knowledge of Greenway's next destination, I figured it wouldn't hurt to take a little joyride. Besides, though I hated to admit it, my studio was suddenly sounding kind of empty. After the chilling experience tonight, coupled with the knowledge Greenway was still out there somewhere, the thought of being alone wasn't all that appealing. And I didn't even have anyone I could call for a chickenhearted sleepover. Dana was off in hot tub land, and of course Richard was AWOL. I guess I could have called my mom, but then I would have had to spend the evening hearing about her upcoming bachelorette party at Beefcakes and just how many twenties she was taking with her. Which was almost as creepy.

I know it was crazy, but as long as I had Ramirez in my sights, I felt safe. Funny how the taillights of an SUV could be so comforting.

So, I continued to follow Ramirez down Lankershim to the 134. He got on going east, toward Pasadena, but turned off at the 5 south. He drove fast, like he was late for something, weaving in and out of traffic down the 5, chasing it all the way to the 60 east toward Pomona. I struggled to catch up while simultaneously trying to keep at least one semitruck between us. I was determined to be in stealth mode tonight.

My dash clock read seven thirty before Ramirez finally pulled his SUV off the freeway and exited at Azusa and into the residential neighborhood of Hacienda Heights. The houses there were modest single-family homes that looked like they'd seen generations of children come and go. Originally cookie-cutter tracts in the fifties, the street was now dotted with garage conversions, siding from Sears, and the occasional second story addition. The landscaping was mature, the lawns neatly clipped and littered with big wheels and soccer balls.

Ramirez led me past a house with a baby swing hung from a tree in the yard and a crisp picket fence outlining the lawn, and I had a moment of suburban panic as my possible future flashed before my eyes. Was this what a pink line meant?

Okay, so I'm not so neurotic as to have a mental breakdown at the mere thought of settling down in soccer mama land. But the thought of giving up my studio (dinky as it may be), of, gulp, cohabiting with Richard (yes, I was ignoring the Cinderella factor), and becoming Florence Henderson made my hands sweat. With one broken condom was I really ready to give up my whole life for suburbanitehood?

And I hated to admit a teeny tiny (very teeny tiny, mind you) part of me kind of wanted to. I blamed my Cabbage Patch kids for the sudden maternal wistfulness. I'd been programmed since I bought Barbie her dream house, complete with the perfect accessory, her Ken doll, to want all this. And yet as it stared me in the face, I broke out in a cold sweat.

So complete was my fear that I realized I'd lost Ramirez.

Crap.

I circled the block, turning at the corner to retrace my steps. On the second go round, I finally spotted his SUV parked on the opposite side of the street under a leafy oak.

I parked at the corner, well away from the dim glare of streetlamps, and slid low in my seat. I could see from here that Ramirez's SUV was empty. He'd already gotten out and presumably gone into one of the houses while I'd circled the block. Crap.

I quickly scanned the two houses on either side of his car. One was completely dark. The other was a squat ranch style with yellow shutters and the blue light of a television set flickering through the front window. The yard was dotted with yucca trees and hula hoops. Rose bushes lined the walkway, mingling with baseball mitts, Tonka trucks, and an abandoned Raggedy Ann. All of which didn't strike me as the type of hideout Greenway would choose. I silently wondered what Ramirez was doing here.

Then he yanked my psychic thread again.

"Looking for me?" Ramirez's face appeared in my window.

I yelped like a terrier, jumping back in my seat.

"Geeze, you scared the crap out of me."

His eyes crinkled in a half smile, as if he'd meant to. "You're beginning to be a real pain, you know it?"

"We girly girls are like that."

"Don't suppose I could persuade you to go home now, huh?"

I put on my best tough chick face. "No, you can't. I don't know what makes you think you can just order me around like this. It's because I'm a woman, isn't it?"

His half smile widened. "Actually, it's because I carry a badge."

Right. Well, I guess he did have a point there.

I decided to change the subject. "So, where are we?" I asked, gesturing to the sleepy neighborhood.

He glanced at the hula hoop house. "Nowhere important."

Uh-huh. Like I believed that for a second. "Who's in there?" I asked, craning in my seat to see past the yellow shutters.

Ramirez shook his head. "Trust me. You don't want to know."

"There you go again. Telling me what I want and don't want. Do women really go for this sexist pig thing you've got going on?" But even as I said it I had no doubt that they did.

Ramirez got that I'm-gonna-arrest-you-and-I'm-gonna-like-it twinkle in his eyes again. "Okay. You really want to know?"

I was wavering. But, I hadn't come this far just to be intimidated by some man who thought he could boss me around just because he was sexier than Brad Pitt in a toga. I squared my shoulders. "Yes."

"Alright. Let's go in."

This was too easy. There had to be a catch. But, after the stink I'd made, I could hardly chicken out now. (And I had to admit, going to Destination Unknown with Ramirez still sounded better than sitting in my studio alone, waiting for Greenway to jump out and spill my Karo syrup.) So, I grabbed my purse and locked my Jeep, following as Ramirez led the way across the street and up the rose lined path.

The front door was painted a vibrant red with an orange stained-glass window. Ramirez gave a familiar shave-and-a-hair-cut knock and opened the door without waiting for an answer, pushing me in ahead of him.

The air was warmer than outside and smelled like tamales, Pine-Sol, and sugar cookies. Music played from somewhere deep in the house, and a chorus of children's voices all vied for attention just beyond my vision. Ramirez walked me into a cozy living room that looked about to burst at the seams with chotchkes of every variety. Colored glass vases, a collection of Anaheim Angels bobblehead dolls, homemade afghans in bright greens and assaulting pinks, and glass candle holders painted with pictures of the Virgin Mary filled every conceivable surface. A man in a worn work shirt and jeans dozed in a burnt orange La-Z-Boy in the corner, a black cowboy hat resting on the coffee table beside him. The television I'd seen from the street was muted, playing a John Wayne western.

Just beyond the living room I could see a kitchen done in baby blue Formica, bustling with round women chattering in rapid Spanish.

I had serious second thoughts about coming in with Ramirez. I'd envisioned questioning a suspect under blaring lamps, breaking into a suburban crack den, even squeezing information out of Greenway's second cousin's neighbor. But I had a sinking feeling I'd walked into something much scarier.

"Hello?" Ramirez called.

The Spanish ceased, and five little faces popped out of the kitchen. All were a warm tan color, topped by waves of thick black hair. One woman seemed about my age, while the other four wore soft wrinkles and streaks of gray through their locks.

The shortest one (and none of them seemed over five feet) clapped her hands in front of her as she spied Ramirez. "Mijo, you came!"

"Of course I came." Ramirez walked over to the woman, planting a quick kiss on her cheek. "You didn't think I'd miss your birthday, Mama?"

Mama? Uh-oh. Sinking feeling realized.

I tugged at the hem of my dress, wondering if I could make it grow about three inches if I just wished it hard enough. I wasn't fond of meeting anyone's mother dressed like this, let alone one who baked sugar cookies. Maybe if I backed up real slowly I could just disappear out the front door with some shred of my dignity left.

As if he could read my mind, Ramirez said, "Mama, this is Maddie."

I froze as five pairs of deep brown eyes turned on me. So much for backing out the door.

Mama looked me up and down. She raised one thick eyebrow at Ramirez. The other women simply stared at me, their eyes as big and round as their soft faces. All except the younger one. Her eyes narrowed into a tight line, and she pursed her lips together.

"Maddie, this my sister BillieJo, and The Aunts—Swoozie, Cookie, and Kiki."

The Aunts stared. BillieJo glared.

"Hi," I said. I did a little one finger wave. No one waved back.

I felt the word hooker flashing on my forehead like a neon sign. "I, uh, don't usually dress like this," I said quickly, my cheeks burning brighter than Rudolph's shiny nose.

Mama gave me a slow once-over. Her gaze lingered on my hemline. Self-consciously, I gave it another tug south.

"Nice legs," she said.

"Uh…" I looked to Ramirez for an appropriate response. No help there. He crossed his arms over his chest and rocked back on his heels, a smirk pasted on his face that clearly said this was payback for following him around town.

"Thanks," I finally managed.

"I used to have legs like that," Mama went on. "Before I had babies. Babies ruin your legs. Varicose veins, cellulite. It's not pretty. You have any babies?"

"No. No babies." Yet.

"Good for you. Keep those legs as long as you can. I had my first baby when I was seventeen. How old are you?"

"Um. Twenty-nine," I answered. Only it sounded more like a question, as if I was hoping I'd gotten the right answer on the pop quiz

"Oh." Mama leaned in and pseudo whispered. "Are you barren?"

I think I heard Ramirez snort.

"No! No, I'm not barren. I'm just…I have a job."

"Oh. Well, then. Good for you. A career girl. I always wanted to be a career girl. I thought I'd make a really good firefighter."

I tried not to laugh as I pictured Mama's portly frame hauling someone from a burning building.

"So, what do you do?" she asked.

"I design shoes."