Somehow I survived dinner even with Faux Dad getting all googly-eyed at the thought of a new baby and Mom getting all googly-eyed at the thought of shoving twenties in some young stud's G-string. I still wasn't sure which scenario made me more nauseated.
I took the 405 home, checking the entire way for signs of bad guys, and slowly climbed the flight of stairs to my studio apartment, where I promptly collapsed on my velvet upholstered futon. I didn't even glance in the direction of the EPT. Much. Instead, I called Richard's machine one more time for good measure. I didn't mention that I'd been there earlier or the man with the gun.
I flipped on Seinfeld and vegged out as Jerry and George tried to come up with a plot about nothing. I fell asleep fully clothed, trying to fight images of black tattoos, shiny silver 38 specials, and my mother holding a basinet full of pink baby booties.
The next morning I awoke with a renewed sense of purpose. It appeared I wasn't the only one looking for Richard, which meant I had to step up the search. I was his girlfriend, which theoretically meant I should have the edge, knowing him better than anyone. The trouble was Richard and I mostly just did couple stuff when we were together—dinner and a movie at the Dome, cruising the Venice boardwalk hand-in-hand, snuggling under the stars on symphony night at the Hollywood Bowl. Honestly, I didn't really know any of his friends, and now that I was thinking about it, I didn't really know what he did outside of "us" time either. It was a troubling thought.
So, I started with the short list of people in Richard's life I did know. Namely, his mother. The only problem was I didn't know her number, and didn't even know her first name to call information. Chances were good it was back at Richard's condo somewhere, but after the run-in with Mr. Nobody, that wasn't a place I was especially looking forward to visiting again.
That left Richard's office. I knew he kept a complete address book on his Palm Pilot and another on his computer at work. The only obstacle to getting that would be Jasmine. But I was confident I could come up with some way to get around her. The woman had the IQ of a squash.
So, I put on my kick butt clothes. Black DKNY cargos, ice blue baby T, and my prize black two-inch Jimmy Choos with the rhinestone details. I capped it all off with some thick black eyeliner, and I could have doubled for a Bond Girl.
I parked in the garage and by nine fifteen I was standing in front of Jasmine's desk pleading my case.
"I think I left my cell phone in one of the conference rooms last time I was here. Can I go in and get it? Please? I'll just be a minute."
Predictably Jasmine was enjoying this, her penciled in eyebrows twitching with amusement. "I'm sorry. But I can't let you go in there."
"Please? I'd ask Richard, but I can't seem to get a hold of him. Really, I'll be super quick."
"I'm sorry, but only lawyers and clients are allowed back there," she said, pointing to the frosted doors. "We can't have just anyone roaming around."
"But I really need that phone," I whined. Jasmine shrugged her shoulders as if to say, tough luck, chickie.
I pouted, then faked a thoughtful face as I stared at the frosted doors. I paused, counted to three Mississippi, then opened my eyes wide as if I'd had a light bulb moment. "I know! Jasmine, you could go get it for me."
She looked doubtful, glancing at her computer screen. Before she could argue the importance of her solitaire game, I rushed on. "Oh please, Jasmine? I really, really need that phone. You'd be doing me such a huge favor. I'd really owe you one."
She bit her oversized lip and stared at me so long I thought maybe she'd forgotten the question. Finally she let out a long suffering sigh. "Fine. I'll go check. But stay right here."
I held up three fingers. "Scout's honor."
That was almost too easy.
I waited until she'd disappeared into one of the conference rooms before bolting through the frosted doors and fairly sprinting down the hall to Richard's office. I quickly slipped inside and closed the door after myself.
As expected, there was no sign of Richard. Though the scent of his Hilfiger aftershave still hung in the air. I inhaled deeply, suddenly all the more desperate to find him.
The office held three bookcases filled with impressive looking volumes and Richard's honey oak desk situated in the center of the room. His desktop held an oversized leather bound calendar, a computer monitor, a telephone with about a gazillion little extension buttons, a penholder, and a stack of bulging file folders. The message light on his phone was blinking double time. Not a good sign.
I gingerly sat down behind the desk, flicking the monitor on. Luckily, Richard hadn't logged out of the system the last time he'd been here, and it only took a couple minutes of clicking around until I found his address book with his mother's phone number in Palm Springs. I pulled a sticky pad out of the desk and wrote the number down, slipping it into my back pocket. I flipped the monitor off again and stood up. Mission accomplished. I was actually pretty good at this cloak and dagger stuff.
I pushed the chair back in, put away the sticky pad, and was just about to leave when I caught sight of the stack of files again. Bulging with forbidden documents. I took a quick look over both shoulders in a totally unnecessary move that somehow made me feel safer. Nope. Nobody watching. Just me and the files. Alone.
I tried to resist…but I was only human.
I picked up the one on top, knowing that if Richard ever saw me looking at these he'd have a cow, then give me an endless lecture about client-attorney confidentiality. But this was an emergency. I was late. And there was no way I was going to take that damn test and deal with the results without him. He got me into this mess—he was damn well going to be there while I peed on the stick.
So, fully justified, I opened the first file.
Worthington v. Patterson. To my disappointment it contained one legal sized document after another that I could have sworn were written in a foreign language. The only words I understood were the and party. So much for juicy stuff.
I dropped that one back into the pile, hoping that at least one of these included a blackmail demand, death threat, or secret cover-up. I hated to think my snooping was just nosiness.
I picked up Elmer v. Wainsright.
"What are you doing?"
My head snapped up so fast I feared whiplash.
Standing in the doorway was none other than Mr. Nobody. My heart froze in my chest, and I quickly checked his person for a gun. Fortunately I didn't see one. And considering how tightly his navy T-shirt and Levis were hugging the form in the doorway, there wasn't much chance of hiding it from view. He looked like he worked out. A lot. Dana would have been proud of him.
Well what? Oh, right. What was I doing here.
"Looking for Richard," I squeaked. Suddenly at the sight of him I'd turned into Minnie Mouse. I cleared my throat, trying to convince myself that this guy didn't scare me. We were in a lawyer's office for crying out loud. He couldn't very well kill me here. Right?
I took a step backward anyway. Better safe than sorry.
"What a coincidence," he replied, his voice much deeper and smoother than I'd imagined. "So am I. Any luck?"
I shook my head no, afraid I'd sound like a Mouseketeer again if I spoke. This guy seriously flashed danger in big, bold neon. And it wasn't just the potentially concealed weapon. It was the hard set of his jaw, the steadiness of his dark eyes as they quickly swept the room, the white scar over his eyebrow that I'd bet my Spigas he hadn't gotten from a paper cut.
He walked slowly over to Richard's desk and glanced down at the file I'd been attempting to read. "Anything good in there?"
"I don't know. I don't speak attorney."
The corner of his mouth quirked up ever so slightly. "Cute."
He leaned his back casually against the desk, crossing his arms over his chest. His biceps strained against the sleeves of his T-shirt, the tattoo on his right arm peeking out again. It looked like a panther. Dark and sleek. With razor sharp claws. "So, you want to tell me what you're really doing here?"
"Nuh-uh." I shook my head again.
He grinned. A slow, wicked grin that reached all the way to his dark eyes. It was the kind of grin that made women either cower in fear or want to rip his clothes off.
I licked my lips, my mouth suddenly filled with sand.
"Okay," he said, cocking his head to one side. "How about this. How about you tell me who you are then, huh?"
"Maddie Richard's girlfriend." I was reluctant to give him my last name as at the moment I couldn't remember if I'd been talked into a public listing by the phone company.
"His girlfriend? Really?" He raised one eyebrow at me.
"Yes. His girlfriend."
"Huh." He looked me up and down, his eyes doing a slow, thorough appraisal.
"Nothing. I just didn't see him with someone so girly."
Hey! I planted my hands on my hips, throwing on my best tough chick voice. "This happens to be my Bond girl outfit. It is not girly."
"Easy, Bond Girl." That slow, wolfish smile slid across his face again. "I didn't say I didn't like it."
"Oh." Dang it, I was going for tough chick again, but somehow in the wake of that I'll-huff-and-I'll-puff-and-I'll-blow-your-clothes-right-off smile, Minnie Mouse was back. "So, um, who exactly are you?"
"Detective Jack Ramirez. LAPD."
Ugh. Mental forehead slapping. That explained the gun. I silently hoped that snooping hadn't been upgraded to a misdemeanor.
As if he could read my mind, his lips quirked again. "Jasmine doesn't know you're here, does she?"
I did not dignify this with an answer. Which seemed to amuse him even more, his eyes crinkling at the corners. However, he didn't comment, but instead changed his line of questioning. "When was the last time you saw Richard Howe?"
"Friday. We were supposed to have lunch together. What is this about anyway?"
"Did he cancel?"
"No, I was late." I cringed at the sound of the word echoing through my own head. "When I got here he was talking to you, then he…" I trailed off, remembering the way Richard had stared after Ramirez, then abruptly canceled our lunch. It was clear even then he'd had something on his mind. And I didn't like the way that something had prompted Richard to pack his bags for parts unknown.
I swallowed hard, trying to change the subject. "How did you even get in here?" I asked, knowing that if Jasmine hadn't let me in, there was no way she'd let a cop in.
He grinned. "I have a warrant."
Double ugh. Suddenly my theories of blackmail and secret cover-ups weren't sounding so farfetched. "Warrant?" I squeaked out. "As in, you have the right to remain silent?"
His smile widened, a dimple punctuating his left cheek. Clearly he was enjoying this. Personally I wasn't finding the predicament all that funny. My boyfriend was missing, there was a cop in his office with a warrant, and I had a pregnancy kit sitting on my kitchen counter waiting for another Big Gulp moment. This was not the stuff sitcoms were made of.
"It's a search warrant," he said. He sat down at Richard's desk, picked up the file I'd just been attempting to read, and began scanning its contents. His forehead creased in concentration. Apparently it meant something more to him than it had me. I tried to read over his shoulder, to see if words that made sense had suddenly materialized on the paper. Nope. Same foreign language.
"Searching for what?" I asked finally.
"Evidence." It was clear this guy wasn't going to win any public speaking awards.
If I wanted information, I was going to have to pry it out of him. I mentally greased up my crowbar. "Okay, I give up. What exactly is going on here?"
Ramirez looked up. He narrowed his eyes at me, as if trying to decide how much to share. "Alright. Your boyfriend," he said emphasizing the word as if he didn't really believe it, "is wanted for questioning in connection with embezzlement charges we've brought against one of his clients. Devon Greenway." He paused. "You've heard of him."
I had, and apparently my expression betrayed it. Devon Greenway was one of Richard's biggest clients. I knew Richard had met with him often. In fact he'd canceled a dinner date with me just last Thursday to meet with him. However, if Richard was in trouble I wasn't going to be the one to nail his coffin.
"I may have heard the name."
Ramirez pinned me with a look that could pry pearls out of an oyster. Great, I had to pick now to become a terrible liar.
"Devon Greenway is the CEO of Newtone Technologies," he continued. "They're in the process of filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission for a place on the New York Stock Exchange. However, in the course of an independent audit of the company's finances, a minor discrepancy was noticed."
"Twenty million dollars."
"Wow." I was so in the wrong business.
"No kidding. But before we could file charges, Greenway skipped town."
"And the cash?"
"Just as elusive. Originally the money was funneled from Newtone into a joint usage account, from which a series of checks were drawn made out to PetriCorp. On the surface everything looked legit until we realized that PetriCorp was only a business on paper. And guess who owns it."
"Close. Under the business filing the owner of record is his wife, Celia. Filed under her maiden name, Wesley. Only PetriCorp's accounts are now empty, too. The paper trail ends with the person who set the accounts up in the first place."
A knot formed in my gut. "Richard?"
"Bingo." Ramirez sat back in the chair, crossing his arms over his chest again, watching me digest this information.
I tried not to look as shaken as I felt. "So, is Richard a suspect?"
Ramirez's face was unreadable. "He's a person of interest."
Uh-oh. I'd watched enough episodes of Law & Order to know what that meant. Just one thing. I really had to find Richard now.
Before Ramirez did.
* * *
As soon as I could I hightailed it out of there. I didn't even wait for Jasmine to go on break before barging back through the frosted doors and jogging across the reception area to the tune of her calling "fraud" after me.
My head was spinning the entire two blocks back to the garage. Richard had blown me off and had dinner with Greenway last week. If what Ramirez said was true, it would have been the day before Richard took off for parts unknown. Suddenly I didn't want to know what had gone on at that meeting.
Not that I thought Richard was involved. Richard was a straight arrow. He couldn't even stand his tie being crooked. He would never be involved in something illegal. However, if he'd unwittingly helped Greenway, it was possible he knew more than was good for him, and if Greenway was as unscrupulous as he sounded, Richard might be in danger. And I didn't have the feeling he'd fare much better if Ramirez found him first. Any way you looked at it, my boyfriend was up poopoo creek.
I climbed the stairs to the second story of the parking structure and revved up my Jeep, pulling out onto Grand. I was contemplating my next move at a red light, when I saw Ramirez emerge from Richard's building and jump into a black SUV. Parked illegally. The perks of being the law. He started the SUV and pulled into traffic three cars ahead of me. As the light turned green I watched him weave through downtown, making a sharp right onto 8th. On instinct, I changed gears and followed him.
Did I know what I was doing? No. But it was abundantly clear that Richard hadn't just gone home to take care of his ailing mother. And I didn't have any better ideas.
Feeling very sly, I stayed two car lengths back as Ramirez got onto the 110 heading south. I followed him right through downtown, passing through Watts and Compton until we hit the 405. He was going a reasonably decent speed, and I wished I had a less conspicuous car. While I loved my red Jeep, it didn't really blend into the background. I made a mental note to borrow Dana's tan Saturn if any more surveillance was needed.
The SUV continued south until we turned off at the 22, heading east toward the 5 and Orange County. It was getting late, and I knew we'd hit traffic once we got to the 5. And I was starving. I reached across to my glove box, hoping for some protein bar Dana might have left in there. All I came up with was a packet of stale saltines and a stick of Doublemint. I ate the crackers, hoping Ramirez would pull into a Taco Bell soon.
No such luck. We merged onto the 5, and Ramirez moved into the left lane, settling in for a long drive. I groaned, making a mental note to always eat before tailing a cop.
Just when I'd decided I was on a wild goose chase and going to faint from hunger if I didn't have a Big Beefy DelDeluxe, Ramirez exited the freeway at Bear Street, toward the San Joaquin Corridor. My heart did a little jump as I realized he was taking me right into the heart of OrangeCounty's premier shopping district. Maybe Ramirez wasn't such a bad guy after all.
As we neared the South CoastPlaza, Ramirez pulled away from the shopping district and into the residential. He moved through streets lined with two-story California Spanish villas and faux Tudors until he pulled up to a large, modern home, all glass on one side. I could tell it was designed by some famous architect or other by the angular lines of the structure, looming as if it was ready to topple in the next 6.3 earthquake. The small yard was done in utilitarian bluegrass and decorative stone, which echoed the stark feeling of the glass structure.
Ramirez parked his SUV and got out, approaching the house. I parked across the street, slouching down in my seat in case he glanced behind him. Luckily, he didn't, because I'm sure my red Jeep stuck out like a sore thumb among the subdued Jags and BMWs lining the road.
Ramirez knocked on the front door then waited. Then knocked again. Apparently no one was home. My shoulders sagged at the possibility that I'd just driven all that way on an empty stomach for a nobody's home.
Ramirez looked over both shoulders, as if someone might be watching him. Good cop instincts…I was impressed. I slouched down farther in my seat, just my eyes and nose peaking over the rim of the driver side window. Apparently Ramirez was satisfied, as he proceeded to walk around the back of the house, disappearing through a painted, wooden gate.
I waited. Nothing.
Crap. If he was doing some fancy breaking and entering, I couldn't see from this viewpoint. For all I knew he could have Richard in handcuffs back there. I opened the car door and slunk out, crouching as I ran cross the street. Then realized how ridiculous I must look. Gee, Maddie, that's not suspicious. I straightened up, throwing my shoulders back, and walked around the side of the building as if I owned the place.
The backyard was much more lush than the front, the landscaping done in a mix of tropical birds of paradise, palms, and fat succulent bushes. Small levels had been carved out of the natural hillside, creating a barbecue area, a patioed terrace, and finally an Olympic sized swimming pool. Ramirez stood on the bottom level staring at the swimming pool. I couldn't see what he was looking at, so I quickly picked my way through foliage to the next level above him. I straightened up to get a better look.
Unfortunately, the uneven ground and my two-inch Choos made for a less than stellar combination. My foot slipped, my arms waving for balance that never came. I pitched forward and, before I could catch myself, let out a little scream.
Ramirez turned just in time to see me flailing like a lunatic, falling right toward him.
"Jesus…" he muttered, before collapsing with an oof as I landed on top of him.
I had to admit, landing on him sure beat the ground, though I'm not sure which was harder. His muscled chest didn't give way an inch. I wondered how many hours a day he spent at the gym.
"What the hell are you doing here?" he growled, his nose inches from mine.
I blinked hard, trying to ignore the rush of heat as his muscles wiggled beneath me. "I followed you."
"Hell, I knew that much. But I figured you'd stay in the car."
So much for my career as Maddie the fashionable stealth.
I pried myself off of him, awkwardly regaining my footing. Note to self: real Bond Girls don't wear Choos. "Sorry," I mumbled, sure I sounded as sheepish as I felt.
Ramirez grunted by way of response, standing up and dusting off the seat of his jeans. I tried not to stare. Much.
"I'll wear flats next time," I said instead.
"Smartass," he muttered. But he didn't go for his gun, now clipped conspicuously to his belt, which I interpreted as a good sign.
"So, whose house is this?" I asked.
Ramirez's eyes darkened, the line of his jaw tightening until I could see a little blue vein starting to bulge in his neck. "Hers." He gestured down to the pool.
I peeked over the edge of the hill at the sparkling blue water, shimmering in the late afternoon sun.
My stomach clenched, the saltines threatening to make a repeat appearance as black spots danced before my eyes. The manicured landscape swayed in front of me, and Ramirez's arm, suddenly at my waist, was the only thing keeping me from crumpling back down on the rocky ground.
In the pool was a tall, slim woman with clouds of flaming red hair.
Floating face down.