My heels seeped deep into the sand at the playground. It slowed me down, making each step more difficult. My thigh muscles ached, but I wasn't stopping. Sirens blasted from the west, so I booked it east.
And I wasn't alone.
Aiden, after recovering from my right hook straight to his eye, followed me. I felt him a few steps behind. He called my name as I rounded the seesaw, but I didn't turn around.
Perspiration pressed my blouse to my back and dotted my forehead. My earpiece fell out somewhere near the slide. The mic jiggled between my boobs.
"I'm exiting near the swings," I yelled into my chest, gasping for air, in case they could hear me.
Hopefully Aiden couldn't.
My main thought, I can't believe I let him trick me again, pumped adrenaline through my legs and kept me moving.
By the time I neared the exit, flashing red and blue lights illuminated the night sky. They were too close. Aiden's slapping footsteps gained distance. I considered kicking off my pumps, but a) they were snakeskin, b) they cost way too much to leave on the side of the road, and c) running barefoot on cement and pebbles was painful.
My lungs burned. My pulse pounded in my ears, competing with the sirens. The sandy ground turned into concrete, and I lunged forward, gaining new momentum. My skin burned. I wanted to shrug it off. I would've settled for removing my jacket, but my gun was still holstered to my side. It was the last thing the police needed to see.
The Welcome and Please Don't Litter signs blurred as I ran past. Once I hit the street, I stopped for a second to gather my wits. Perspiration slid into my eye. I pushed it away with the back of my hand. The blue and red lights were up ahead, by the west entrance. Could they see me?
Cars sped down the road. There was no sign of the girls. Knowing Aiden was a step behind, I darted across the street. Horns blasted, but I couldn't take the time to cross safely. I headed east, knowing the area somewhat well.
I weaved around a couple holding hands, a group of teenagers smoking cigarettes, and a homeless guy begging for change. I neared the corner and charged forward, hoping that once I turned I'd have a moment to hide and get Aiden off my tail. I didn't look back, didn't want to see how close he was, but I knew he was still back there. I sensed his proximity.
As I leaned into the turn, a man appeared, and I plowed into him.
I lost my breath and bounced off his chest, like a rag doll. Instead of landing on my back, I twisted and fell into a bicycle propped against the store front.
We both slid to the ground. Me and the bike. Not me and the man. The man kept going, never stopping to see if I was okay, or if a handlebar was jammed into my ribs.
I sprawled across the metal hunk of junk. My palms scraped the sidewalk, but my left knee took most of the brunt, stuck between the wheel spokes. Bolts of fire shot into my thigh. On the verge of tears, I wanted to cry, scream, and throw a two-year-old tantrum.
I didn't have time to nurse my bruises though, physical or emotional. Self-preservation brought me to my knees. Indecent, manly grunts tore from my chest as I climbed to my feet. I wobbled around the corner, hoping my leg wouldn't cramp. I hurried around a woman shouting into her phone and turned to the neon red sign in my peripheral vision.
The Spotted Pony.
Exhilaration spread through my weary bones. I knew this place.
I limped across the street toward the building. The girls and I worked a case here six months ago. A near-hysterical wife had hired us to get the goods on her husband who was frequenting the club. She suspected he was sleeping with a dancer named Luscious Lavender. After a week of stakeouts and an offer from the owner to dance, we discovered the man had been married previously. He'd lost touch with his first wife, who fled from the relationship three months pregnant. Luscious Lavender was the guy's daughter.
I pushed open the heavy wooden door and rushed inside. No one manned the entrance, so I sprinted into the club, mindful that Aiden and his cop parade could barge through at any moment.
I slipped to the left, trying to blend in with the horny crowd. The woman on stage hung upside down, with her legs wrapped around a pole. Several young guys in the front row cheered and barked. It was either a bachelor party or their first time.
I spotted Omar, the owner, near the bar and shouted his name. I limped over, panting like a wild dog.
He looked up and chuckled, recognizing me immediately. At six-feet, two hundred fifty pounds and sporting a military buzz, he resembled a bouncer more than an entrepreneur. He took in my limp and my labored breaths and uttered one word. "Who?"
"GQ," is all I got out between pants. I really needed to work out more.
I barely heard the door swing open above the house music and cat calls, but I sensed him. I stepped to the side and used Omar as a human shield.
"Candy, Apple." He snapped his fingers and pointed to Aiden.
Immediately two girls working the tables jumped to attention. They were dressed in halters and skirts so short their butt cheeks were visible from beneath. Strapped to their freshly pedicured feet were glittery stilettos. They slithered over to Aiden. The pale one pressed her man-made chest to his bicep. The other leaned into him and gyrated against his hip. If I wasn't running for my life, I would've enjoyed watching him squirm away.
Omar kissed the top of my head. "I saw your picture on the news. Clear yourself and be safe."
Without another word, he turned his back and continued playing guard as I snuck alongside the stage to the back offices.
I appreciated that he never asked if I killed the judge.
Chatter and laughter from the dressing area grew louder as the music softened. Light spilled onto the tarnished wood floor, and I stopped at the adjacent door. I peeked in.
Three girls were applying liquid eyeliner and brushing their hair. Luscious Lavender had stopped working here after her father insisted she come live with him and his wife. I heard she enrolled in the dental hygiene program at the community college. His had wife ended up filing for divorce. Despite the biological connection, she couldn't stand another woman in her husband's life.
I turned away and stepped into Omar's cool, dark office, a momentary reprieve, and walked around his desk.
During my time staking out Luscious Lavender and Daddy, I'd spent several hours working the floor. Not the stage. Serving drinks, ignoring roaming hands, and making decent tips.
When Omar discovered I was a PI, and I never did find out just how, he’d dragged me into his office and demanded I spill. I had, he'd laughed, then he'd agreed to let me stay as long as I needed, even showing me his secret back door exit to the alleyway in case I needed a quick escape.
The exact route I took now.
As I threw open the door, the balmy night air hitting me square in the face, I heard tires screech around the corner. A second later, Caleigh and Sam pulled to a stop at the back door and waved me over.
Caleigh opened the passenger door and scooted toward the glove compartment. I pushed up the back of her seat and squeezed in.
Sam smiled at me through the rearview mirror, but she spoke to Caleigh. "See, I knew in this neighborhood, she'd head for The Spotted Pony."
Damn. Now I really didn't want to fire her.
I leaned my head back as Sam took a left out of the alley, heading toward the freeway. I closed my eyes willing my heart rate to return to normal. I needed a long, hot shower and a cold, stiff drink.
* * *
We pulled up in front of Maya's. The office was off-limits, as was my apartment, and we needed answers fast. When we stepped through the doorway of her apartment, she was pouring four, large margaritas on the rocks. I loved her.
I limped to the upholstered sofa and flopped onto it. My knee throbbed, and it was all I could do to not clench my teeth and bellow warrior style.
Maya handed me a drink and held out two bottles. One was over-the-counter, generic ibuprofen and the other was prescribed oxycodone. "From when I had kidney stones last year," she explained.
I grabbed the amber bottle, popped a giant white pill into my mouth and gulped the 'rita. Cold, frothy, and with extra tequila. God bless alcohol.
I'd only been to Maya’s place twice before. The first time when Maya moved in and the second had been to celebrate her twenty-fifth birthday. The second time I'd been declared the designated driver.
Luckily I wasn't driving tonight.
Everything looked the same. Glass accent tables, navy upholstery, a few simple picture frames, and no unnecessary clutter. A sleek glass and metal desk sat across from the couch. Her laptop displayed a search engine results page. Obviously she'd already begun researching.
That was my girl.
Sam and Caleigh settled in with their drinks, and I closed my eyes for a moment. I pushed thoughts of Aiden aside and focused on which would soothe my pain first, the alcohol or medication.
"How's Julio?" Maya asked Sam.
"He's fine. It's the babysitter who can't stop puking. A neighbor's watching him tonight, but she's not available tomorrow."
With everything going on, it would've been easy to tell her to stay home with her kid. They each deserved a day off. But even if I ignored the murder charge hanging over my head, there was still the matter of a failing business. We couldn't afford to lose any clients, and I couldn't afford to lose one of my girls.
"I did a reverse lookup on that number you got from Donna's place, boss," Maya said.
I opened my eyes and sat up, trying not to wince and show my enormous discomfort. "And?"
She pressed her lips together and shook her head. "It led to an optometrist's office. Donna had an eye exam scheduled for next week."
I sighed. Another dead end.
Maya turned to her computer. "But I've been digging for info on the drug—Shooting Stars."
"And?" I asked, taking another sip.
"From what I could find, there seems to be a lot of chatter about it on some forums. It's in code for the most part. Here, look."
She clicked several keys and pulled up the account of someone named Sgrbabee69. The profile picture showed a barely legal young woman with glitter eye shadow and frosted lipstick.
Maya pointed to the statuses. "She's talking to some guy about getting together and watching for shooting stars."
"Does she give any clue where they go to get the stuff?" I asked.
Maya refreshed the page and read the words, mumbling out loud. The print was too small for me to see, and I wasn't ready to give up my comfortable position.
"Last weekend they met at Club Dante."
Invisible icy fingers trailed along my spine. "Donna worked there."
How likely was it a coincidence? Not that it mattered. I didn't believe in coincidences.
"So that's where I go." I braced the arm and back of the sofa to use as leverage as I stood up. The throbbing in my knee wasn't as strong as before, but the room teetered to the left.
"Whoa." I slid back onto the cushion. Margarita sloshed onto my skirt.
"Yeah, you're not going anywhere now, boss." Sam took the glass from my hand and set it on the coffee table.
"I don't have time to rest."
"Too bad. You won't make it otherwise."
As much as I wanted to disagree further, I knew I was in no condition to do anything more than sleep. The only problem was where.
As if reading my mind, Maya said, "You can stay here."
I shook my head slowly, fearing sudden movements. "No, thank you. It'll just be a matter of minutes before they search for me at all of your places. I shouldn't even be here now."
"Well you can't go home, so what? A motel?" Caleigh wrinkled her nose at the idea. Unless it offered chocolate mints on your pillowcases and had a concierge, she’d deemed the place inferior.
Too bad my wallet couldn't appreciate her tastes.
Danny's place was completely out of the question, too. Not only because of the police, but I was still angry at him and had no intention of admitting he was right about tonight. No, I needed a hideaway off the radar, with someone no one would suspect.
A tidal wave of nausea, not due to my dangerous combination of narcotics and alcohol, consumed me.
I had only one choice.