Mae Sullivan frowned up at the grimy old office building and shifted from one spike-heeled foot to the other, trying to keep her weight off her blisters. From the looks of the neighborhood, her chances of getting mugged were only slightly outweighed by the chances of the building falling on her. Only a loser would work in a place like this.
She’d found her sucker: Mitchell Peatwick, Private Investigator.
It hadn’t been easy finding an incompetent private eye on such short notice in a midwestern city like Riverbend. She couldn’t exactly go around asking for referrals to stupid gumshoes. So she’d started with the A’s in the yellow pages and worked her way down, rejecting one prosperous PI after another as her blisters swelled and bubbled. But now there was Mitchell Peatwick. She could picture him, leaning back in his office chair, balding and overweight, slack-jawed and beady-eyed, no brains to speak of.
He’d patronize her because she was female.
She’d play him like a piano.
All she had to do was convince him that he was investigating a real murder case so that he’d swing his paunchy weight around, creating noise and confusion until whoever had taken her uncle’s diary would be forced to either give it up or bury it forever if he didn’t want to be accused of murder. Yep, that was all she had to do. So go do it. She took a deep breath and winced as the waistband of her pink skirt cut into her flesh. Then she pulled the veil on her hat over her eyes and walked toward the cracked glass doors of the old building, watching her reflection as she climbed the steps.
Even through the dumb pink veil, she really did look sexy.
It was amazing what clothes could do.
Now if she could just get this damn interview over with before the waistband of June’s skirt cut her in two and June’s heels made her lame for life, she’d be on her way to solving all of their problems.
Please let Mitchell Peatwick be dumb as a rock with a weakness for women in tight suits, she prayed as she rang for the elevator. Please let him be everything I need him to be.
The window behind him was cranked wide open, and the ceiling fan above him stirred the air, and Mitch was sure if he got any hotter, he’d die. As it was, he was pretty sure that the only thing that kept him alive was the fact that he wasn’t moving. If he moved, his body temperature would rise, and he’d melt right there in his office chair.
He didn’t want to move anyway. He was too depressed to move. He leaned back in his cracked leather desk chair–sleeves rolled up, hands laced behind his head, heels crossed on his metal desk–and thought about the way he’d planned things and the way they’d turned out. Big difference there. Anticipation was a lousy preparation for reality. That’s why he was giving up anticipation for fantasy. Fantasy was not particularly productive, nor was it lucrative, but it beat reality hands down.
Fantasy was leaving a prosperous career a year before on a spur-of-the-moment bet to become a private detective. Reality was regretting it. He’d envisioned himself as a lone knight fighting evil, the Sam Spade of the 90s. He’d since learned that being a private detective meant divorce work and more divorce work, occasionally relieved by more divorce work, and in most of those cases, as far as he could see, everybody was evil. Mitch hadn’t had many illusions about relationships before, but he had absolutely none now. Even people who weren’t married had him investigate to see if the people they weren’t married to were telling the truth. And of course, they weren’t. That was the one irrevocable truth Mitch had learned in a year.
Sam Spade would have understood that part, but he would have spit on the divorce work. Mitch had the uncomfortable feeling that he should be spitting on it, too, instead of making a precarious living at it. Too precarious. He had one week left in the year, one week to earn the last of $20,000 and win his stupid bet and go back to his regularly scheduled life, but to do that he needed a client who would shell out $2,694 before Friday.
It wasn’t going to happen. Prying money out of clients was the second least favorite thing he’d learned about this job.
So when he heard the elevator cables rumble in the hall opposite his office door, he didn’t leap to his feet with enthusiasm. It wasn’t just because the heat would kill him if he moved. It was also because it had been a long time since he’d done anything with enthusiasm, and he’d forgotten how it worked.
If I were Sam Spade, this would be Brigid O’Shaughnessy. The ancient fan creaked above him, and buttery sunlight spattered over him, and in spite of himself, he began to feel optimistic again. Maybe hope wasn’t dead yet. Maybe this was Brigid O’Shaughnessy heading his way after all, a woman uninterested in marriage and commitment, willing to seduce him to get what she wanted.
He was sure as hell willing to be seduced.
She’d come into the office, cool, slender, lovely, and lethal, in one of those white suits with the wide lapels and a tight skirt that was slit to the hip. She’d have incredible legs. And maybe she’d be wearing a hat over her glossy red curls, a dark veil that dusted over blue, blue eyes, and a straight, little nose above pouty, moist lips. And in between the lips and the legs would be the best part. Her jacket would be tight under her breasts. Round breasts. Full, round breasts. High, full, round breasts.
With an effort, Mitch moved his mind away from the breasts.
And she’d come in and say, "I need you to find the Maltese Falcon," and her voice would be throaty and soft. And somewhere along the way, she’d take off her hat, and they’d have passionate, steamy, slippery, sweaty sex . . .
Mitch lingered for a moment on the sex.
. . . and then he’d find out that she was the guilty one all along. "I won’t play the sap for you, baby," he’d say, and they’d take her away for murdering his partner. Okay, he didn’t have a partner unless he counted Newton, and nobody ever counted Newton, but still. . . . No wonder that book was a classic. Sam Spade got to nail her without a commitment and still feel good about himself when he dumped her. First, great sex, and then he walked out on her, free as a bird, a hero instead of a schmuck.
Now there was a fantasy.
Then the door opened, and he looked up, and she came in.
Her hair was dark brown, and so were her eyes behind the veil, and her suit was pink instead of white, but everything else was pretty much his fantasy. The nose, the lips, the–
"I’ll be damned." With enormous effort, Mitch raised his eyes from her breasts to her face.
"Probably." Her voice reverberated straight into his spine. "Are you Mitchell Peatwick?"
"Uh, yeah." Mitch swung his feet to the floor and stood up, wiping his palm on his shirt before offering her his hand. "Mitch Peatwick, private investigator. Listen, did you ever read The Maltese Falcon?"
"Yes." She ignored his hand as she surveyed the office, her pout deepening as she took in the cracks in the upholstery and the dust. "Is this really your office?"
Okay, she wasn’t impressed with the accommodations. And obviously not with him, either. Well, that was the way the world worked. Anticipation tripped him up every time. If she’d just kept her mouth shut, she would have been perfect, but no . . .
Reality. Nature’s downer.
Mitch sighed and pulled his hand back. "Think of it as atmosphere. I do." He sank into his chair and put his feet back up on the desk. "Now, how can I help you? Lose your poodle?"
She quirked an eyebrow at him. "Would you be able to find it if I had?"
"Just what I needed–a snotty client." Mitch tried to keep the annoyance out of his voice, but it was hard. There was something about being snubbed in the middle of a heat wave by a beautiful woman with fantasy breasts that brought out the worst in him. And anyway, she wasn’t that beautiful. Her nose was actually pretty standard, and her lips didn’t really pout on their own, and her breasts– Don’t think about the breasts, Mitch told himself. It’ll only depress you.
"From the looks of things, you could use any kind of client." She surveyed the bottom of his feet, propped up on the desk in front of her. "I’ve never actually seen paper-thin soles before. It’s amazing. I can tell the color of your socks from here. They have holes in them, too."
"Big deal." Mitch smiled, world weary and invulnerable. "Now tell me something really tough, like the color of my underwear."
"You’re not wearing any underwear," she said, and Mitch put his feet down.
"What do you want?" He glared at her through the dusty sunlight. "If you just stopped by to screw up my day, you’re done."
She looked around the office again and walked over to the coat rack with a hip-rolling step that strained the fabric of her skirt and lessened Mitch’s annoyance considerably. Then she picked up his linen jacket, walked back to the chair he kept for clients, and dusted off the seat with it. Mitch would have been annoyed again, but she bent over to dust the seat, and while the lapels on her jacket were crossed too high to make the view really breathtaking, everything sort of moved forward against the loose, soft fabric, and he remembered that he really didn’t like linen that much anyway. Then she walked back to hang up his jacket, and he watched her from the rear and thought again what amazing creatures women were and how glad he was that he was male.
Then she sat down, and he tried to pay attention.
She blinked at him, her eyes huge. "This has to be confidential."
Mitch snorted. "Of course, it does. Nobody ever walks in here and says, ‘Listen, I want everybody to know this.’" He pulled a yellow legal pad toward him and picked up a pen. "Let’s start with your name."
"Mae Sullivan," she said, and he wrote it down.
"And what seems to be your problem?"
She glared at him. "Someone seems to have murdered my uncle."
Her voice was snottier than he’d imagined a really sexy voice could be. It wasn’t easy being aroused and annoyed at the same time. It took a lot of energy, and he needed that energy to not think about the heat, which was another reason to dislike her. "Murder. Well, you know, the police are excellent at that sort of thing. Have you reported the body yet?"
"The memorial service is day after tomorrow."
"So this isn’t exactly news to the police."
"The police aren’t interested." Her brown eyes met his blue ones evenly. "Are you?"
Mitch looked into those eyes and thought about murder instead of divorce work and sighed. "Yes. I’m going to be sorry, but yes, of course, I’m interested."
She shifted in her seat, all her moving parts meshing in elegant, erotic motion, and Mitch thought, Thank God I don’t have a partner, or she’d have offed him for sure.
Lying wasn’t Mae’s strong suit, but she was considerably cheered by what she saw. Blinking up at her, groggy with the heat that blanketed his office, Mitchell Peatwick didn’t look as if he’d catch on if she told him she was one of the Pointer Sisters. He just lounged behind his Goodwill desk, his shaggy blond hair falling in his eyes, and smarted off to her while she snubbed him. When he wasn’t talking, he was sort of endearing in a dumb-as-a-box-of-rocks kind of way, but he had an office right out of a dime novel, and his mind was obviously still in one. The Maltese Falcon? What a dreamer.
But that was good. It was going to take a dreamer to buy her story about the murder and the diary. And he wasn’t completely impossible. He wore beat-up clothes of no particular style, and his hair could have used a trim, and his face had more jaw than it really needed, but he was solidly male, in that broad-shouldered, non-gold-chain-wearing, let-me-lift-that-car-for-you-lady kind of doofus sexiness that made women think that maybe they’d been too hasty with the liberation movement.
And then, of course, he opened his mouth, and all those women went looking for the nearest lamppost to hang him from. If he’d just kept his mouth shut . . .
On the other hand, she was looking for dumb.
"Tell me about your uncle," he said, and his voice was patient, and she thought she saw sympathy in his eyes which made her feel guilty for using him. Of course, maybe it only looked like sympathy. Maybe it was a hangover.
"He was murdered." Mae leaned forward a little, just enough so that her breasts moved under her jacket. It had worked on him before, although she had to be careful not to overdo it. Sometimes men became jaded after too many minutes of shifting silk crepe. Or they got that glazed look in their eyes. She peered into his eyes. Still fairly alert. Full speed ahead. "But nobody believes me when I tell them that."
"Including the police."
Mae tried to look defeated and vulnerable. He looked like the type who would go for defeated and vulnerable. Brigid O’Shaughnessy had done well with defeated and vulnerable. "I haven’t gone to the police. They wouldn’t have believed me. His doctor signed the death certificate. There’s nothing the police can do."
He picked up his pen again. "What was his name?"
"Armand Lewis." Mae watched as his hand moved across the yellow pad, making slashing strokes with the pen. He had strong, broad hands, and his movements were sure, and she was well down the road to her own fantasy when she realized what was happening and put a stop to it. There was too much at stake to blow on a nice pair of hands, particularly a pair hooked to a brain lame enough to buy her story.
He looked up at her. "What did the doctor put on the death certificate?"
He wrote that down and then said, "Did he have heart problems?"
"How old was he?"
His eyes blinked up from the pad into hers. "Seventy-six?"
When he spoke again, he seemed to be choosing his words carefully. "Obviously, it has occurred to you that it is not unlikely that your uncle would die of a heart attack at seventy-six."
"Obviously." Mae smiled at him, Brigid to the teeth.
"Do you have a reason for thinking he was murdered?"
"No." Mae leaned forward a little and moistened her lips. "I just know he was. I have a sixth sense about things sometimes."
He smiled at her, the kind of smile people give to unreasonable small children and the deranged. "And this is one of those times."
"Okay." He went back to the pad, and Mae relaxed an iota. "Did he leave a lot of property?"
"Yes. His estate should be in the neighborhood of twenty million."
"Nice neighborhood. Who inherits?"
"I will, once the will is probated."
His head jerked up. "All of it?"
Mae nodded. "Half of his stock and all of everything else."
"Who gets the rest of his stock?"
"His brother, Claud Lewis."
"Does Claud need the stock?"
He frowned. "And there are no bequests to servants, nothing to charity, no locked boxes to distant relatives?"
Mae shot him another Brigid smile to get him back on track. "Really, this isn’t necessary. There are small bequests to the butler and the housekeeper, but they wouldn’t have hurt my uncle."
"Fifty thousand each."
He met her eyes. "In my neighborhood, fifty thousand isn’t small."
Patience wasn’t supposed to be a bombshell’s strong suit, but Mae didn’t have much choice. Mitchell Peatwick was turning out to be a lot more focused than she’d thought. This was not good. "It’s not enough for them to retire on. If Uncle Armand were still alive, they’d be making almost that much in salary every year, plus free room and board. They’re in their sixties, and they’re not going to find places like the ones they had with my uncle. His death was a disaster for them. Now about my uncle–"
"I don’t suppose there are a lot of calls for butlers these days," he agreed. "Still, give me their names."
Mae took a deep breath. Why was it that men always said they wanted to help her and then refused to listen to her? Was it her, or was it some awful byproduct of testosterone? "They didn’t kill him."
"Give me the names."
She smiled again, a little tighter this time. "Harold Tennyson and June Peace."
"Where are they living?"
"In the house." Mae tried to unclench her teeth. The heat was making her irritable, her tight shoes were making her irritable, but mostly Mitchell Peatwick was making her irritable. "My uncle’s house."
"So you’re keeping them on."
"Well, of course." Mae’s patience finally broke. "I can’t throw them out into the snow."
He smiled at her, obviously pleased to have annoyed her. "It’s July. You’d be throwing them out into the grass. And since you’re not throwing them out, they didn’t lose anything when he died."
Mae swallowed her irritation. "They didn’t know that I wouldn’t throw them out."
"They’re not acquainted with you?"
"Of course, they’re acquainted with me. But I never promised I’d keep them on if anything happened to Uncle Armand. We never talked about it."
"How long have they known you?"
Mae smiled to distract him. "What difference does it make?"
"If they have known you for any length of time, they would have known what you were likely to do. How long have they known you?"
His eyes widened slightly. "Since you were born?"
"No, since I was six and went to live with my uncle."
"You don’t look thirty-four."
"That’s because I’m not married." Mae’s smile felt as if it were set in concrete. "Marriage tends to age a woman."
"Doesn’t do much for a man, either."
"Actually it does. Married men live longer than single men."
"It just seems longer." He leaned back in his chair and surveyed her with patent cynicism. "So Harold and June dandled you on their knees and fed you cookies, but you think they didn’t know that you’d take care of them for life if they offed your Uncle Armand."
Mae closed her eyes briefly. "They did not off my Uncle Armand."
"We’ll get back to them later. Okay, besides you and Harold and June and Uncle Claud, there’s nobody else in the will?"
"Did your uncle own a business?" He tapped his pen on the pad. "Was he involved in anything that somebody might have wanted to take over?"
"He was a partner with my Uncle Claud in Lewis and Lewis years ago."
"The Lewis and Lewis? The big conglomerate Lewis and Lewis?"
"Were there any other partners?"
"No. Just my Uncle Claud."
He opened his mouth again, and Mae moved to block him before he took off in another wrong direction. "He also did not kill my Uncle Armand."
"Did they get along?"
"No. My Uncle Claud disliked my Uncle Armand because he thought that he was profligate and libidinous and a disgrace to the good name of Lewis."
"Sounds like a direct quote."
"Was it true?"
He raised his eyebrows. "Libidinous at seventy-six?"
Mae sighed. Mitchell Peatwick might be a fool, but he was a persistent fool. "He kept a mistress. In fact, they made love the night he died. She tells everyone that whether you ask or not. Then she weeps."
He sat back in his chair. "Could we digress for a moment?"
Mae looked at him with exasperation. "Do I have a choice?"
"No. He was seventy-six years old with a heart condition and he made love with his mistress who was . . . what? Fifty?"
"Twenty-five. Her name is Stormy Klosterman. This is not relevant–"
Mae gave up. "Her stage name is Stormy Weather. Of course, she was temporarily retired while she was with my uncle."
"Of course." He blinked. "That would have been how long?"
"Seven years," Mae said flatly. "He caught her umbrella when it rolled off the runway one night. It was magic."
He grinned at her. "Not a fan of Stormy’s, I see."
Mae shrugged. "She’s all right. At least, I don’t think she killed my uncle. She didn’t get a dime."
"Did she know that before he died?"
"Yes. He was very clear about that with all his women."
"There were more?"
"Well, there were before Stormy. I had a lot of aunts when I was growing up."
"You grew up with Uncle Armand?"
Mae thought briefly about reaching across the desk, grabbing him by the collar, and screaming "Could we get to the diary, please?", but that would have been counter-productive. Humor him. "My parents were killed in a car accident when I was six. They had appointed my three great-uncles as executors and guardians. Uncle Armand, Uncle Claud, and Uncle Gio. All three uncles wanted me, so they drew straws."
"Uncle Gio?" His voice sounded strangled.
"We were all in the lawyer’s office, and they drew straws, and Uncle Armand won. Now can we get back to my Uncle Armand’s death?"
"And Uncle Gio’s last name would be . . .?"
"Terrific." He dropped his pen on the desk and stared at her with distaste.
Mae tried to get the conversation back on track. "I see you’ve heard the rumors about my Uncle Gio. Don’t worry. They’re not true. Now about . . ."
"I’ve heard of the whole family. How’s your cousin Carlo?"
"He’s out already," Mae said. "It was a bum rap."
He sat quietly for a moment, and Mae felt his eyes size her up, and she realized for the first time that she might have made a mistake in coming to see Mitchell Peatwick. He looked like he had the IQ of a linebacker, but there was something going on in that devious male mind. God knew what, but Mae was sure it wasn’t good.
He leaned forward. "Okay, let’s forget Uncle Gio for the moment. Aside from your sixth sense which I’m sure is extremely accurate, you must have had another reason for coming here since, according to you, no one who knew him killed him. So tell me the truth. Why do you think he was murdered?"
This was it. Mae moistened her lips again. "You mustn’t tell anyone this." She leaned forward a little to meet him halfway. "His diary has disappeared. I heard him talking on the phone about it the day before he died, and now it’s gone. The diary isn’t important, but whoever has it murdered him. I’m sure of it."
She was lying, of course. Mitch’s take on humanity had deteriorated to the point where he assumed someone was lying if her lips were moving, but she was definitely lying about the diary. Either there wasn’t a diary, or there was and it was important. Either possibility was irrelevant; what was important was to find out why she was lying.
And with this woman, it could be because of her sixth sense. Or her twenty million.
Hell, with twenty million, she could lie to him forever as long as she paid him $2,694.
If only she hadn’t mentioned her Uncle Gio.
He really had been interested in taking the case. And not just because of the money or because she had a terrific body. Well, okay, partly because of that. But mostly because it would have been great to take as his last case one that didn’t involve drinking lukewarm coffee in parked cars outside cheap motels. He’d come to terms with the fact that his bet had been the result of a mid-life crisis, and that it would have been a hell of a lot easier to just buy aPorshe and date a twenty-year-old, but somehow he’d wanted to have at least one real fight-against-injustice case before he quit and went back to being Mitchell Kincaid, yuppie stockbroker.
And then she dumped Gio Donatello in his lap. Shouting murder in Gio’s vicinity tended to be unhealthy. He raised his eyes to hers to tell her that he didn’t think he’d be interested, and she looked back at him, trusting and vulnerable. He couldn’t tell whether it was real vulnerable or fake vulnerable, although his money was on fake vulnerable, but as vulnerable went, it was very attractive.
"So." Mitch shifted in his chair, squirming as his shirt stuck to the sweat on his back. "Let’s sum up here. You have an seventy-six-year-old man with a heart condition who makes love to his twenty-five-year-old mistress and dies. The doctor says it’s a heart attack. You, the woman who inherits half of his stock and everything else he owns, say it’s murder. The suspects are the cook and the butler, his brother who inherits the other half of his stock, his mistress who inherits nothing, and a local mob boss and his homicidal son, but in your opinion, none of them did it."
"That’s it." She nodded. "I know these people. I’ve asked them if they know anything about Uncle Armand’s death, and they’ve said no. They wouldn’t lie to me."
Mitch shook his head at her naiveté. "Sure they would. The first rule in life is ‘everybody lies.’ Remember that and you’ll get a lot farther."
She blinked at him, her thick lashes making the movement much more of a production than it usually was on regular people. "That’s awfully cynical, Mr. Peatwick."
"That’s me. And cynical doesn’t mean I’m not right. For example, I’ll bet you fifty bucks you’ve lied to me already today."
Her eyes met his without blinking this time. "Of course, I haven’t." She widened her gaze, looking stricken. "How could you think that?"
Mitch grinned. "You’re good, sweetheart. You’re very, very good. But you blew it there at the end. Don’t widen your eyes like that. Gives you away every time."
Her eyes narrowed. It was amazing. Even narrowed they looked good. Sort of bitchy and mean, but good. "Mr. Peatwick," she said. "Do you want this job?"
It was on the tip of his tongue to say no, thank you, I don’t like your relatives, and besides you lied to me, and you’re up to no good, and the diary bit is too farfetched, and what the hell are you trying to do anyway? and then he realized that the only way he’d ever find out what she was trying to do was if he took the case.
And it was a real Sam Spade kind of case.
And he needed the money to win the bet.
Mitch sighed. "What did your uncle say about the diary on the phone that makes you think somebody killed him?"
"He said, ‘Don’t worry. No one can get me without the diary.’"
Mitch felt depression settle over him. For the first time that afternoon, she was making sense. "Are you sure it wasn’t gone before he died?"
"I don’t think so." She gazed at him, wide-eyed and innocent, and he knew she was up to something. "He said that on the phone Monday evening, and he died later that night. He wrote in the diary every night, so he’d seen it the previous evening at the latest."
Mitch threw his pencil on the desk. "Okay. Five hundred per day plus expenses."
Her eyebrows snapped together. "That’s ridiculous."
Mitch shrugged. "That’s my price."
She scowled at him for a moment, and he smiled back, impervious. "All right." She opened her purse and took out a checkbook. He watched her scrawl the amount and her name across the check, her handwriting the first uncontrolled thing he’d seen about her.
Then she tore the check out and tossed it across the desk to him. Thirty-five hundred dollars. He took a deep breath and tried to look unimpressed. "This is for a week. What if I solve this in an afternoon?"
"You can give me a refund."
She didn’t seem unduly interested in the possibility. The woman had no faith in him. Just as well. There was no way in hell he was giving her a refund.
He’d just won his bet.
Mitch walked around the desk and pulled his jacket from the coat rack. "Come on then, let’s go see Uncle Gio."
She took a deep breath, and he watched in appreciation. "Mr. Peatwick, I just paid you to find the diary–"
"And I will do that, Miss Sullivan. I will do whatever you want. But first we will go see Gio Donatello."
"Why Uncle Gio? I told you–"
"I have to talk to all of these people," Mitch said patiently. "And if I manage to live through an afternoon of accusing a mob boss of murder, the rest of this case has got to be all downhill."
"Uncle Gio’s not with the mob."
"Your cousin Carlo cut off somebody’s finger. Who cares if they’re with the mob? They’re psychopaths."
She shifted in her chair. "They’re just volatile."
"Volatile." Mitch snorted. "That’s cute. Come on, let’s go, but I’m warning you, you protect me from your homicidal relatives or my rate doubles."
She picked up her purse, contempt clear in her eyes. "Fine."
He watched her stand, pushing her weight up with her calves which flexed roundly as she moved, and then he watched as she swiveled toward the door.
If she’d just keep her mouth shut…
She turned back to him, impatience making her face stern. "I don’t have all day, Mr. Peatwick, and you’re already wasting my time with this trip. Are you coming or not?"
His fantasy evaporated, and reality returned, still sucking. Mitch sighed and followed her out the door.