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Authors: Barbara Paul

He Huffed and He Puffed

BOOK: He Huffed and He Puffed
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He Huffed and He Puffed

A Marian Larch Mystery

Barbara Paul

MYSTERIOUSPRESS.COM

PART 1

The Victim

1

One of these people,” A. J. Strode said, spreading out the file folders on his desk. “Only one of these three people caves in, and I'm home.” He scowled. “But which one?”

“Go for the violinist,” Myron Castleberry suggested. “She's the weakest.”

Strode raised an eyebrow at his assistant. “You think? Seems to me any babe who can ice her own parents won't fold easy.” He opened one of the folders. “Where is she now?”

“Pittsburgh. Concert tonight—she's the guest artist with the Pittsburgh Symphony. Next she goes home to Boston for a while and then on to a couple of European engagements.”

Strode was reading from the folder. “Did you believe the mercenary?”

Castleberry considered. “Yes, on the whole I did. He embroidered a little to make himself look good. He claimed he was the one who pulled out of the deal, but I'm sure he was lying about that. She was having second thoughts—which means her conscience was bothering her, and that makes her vulnerable.”

Strode grunted. “It could also mean she just decided he wasn't the right man for the job. Where'd they meet—New Orleans? Why New Orleans? He lives in Texas.”

“Neutral ground. She didn't give him her right name, and he didn't have any idea who she was until I showed him one of her publicity photos. He had trouble believing me at first when I told him the two people she wanted killed were her mother and father. To him, she was just a confused lady who'd answered his ad in a gun magazine. He doesn't admit to being a killer for hire, of course.”

Strode closed the folder and opened another one. “What about the missing helicopter pilot? Any line on him?”

“Pierce says he has a soft lead—he'll get back to us in a day or two.” Castleberry looked at his employer quizzically. “You think McKinstry's the one to tackle?”

Strode smiled tightly. “He's been leading such a pure and virtuous life lately, he won't want to see himself back in the headlines again. Besides, don't tell me it was coincidence that pilot dropped out of sight the minute I made my offer. McKinstry paid him to get lost, you can make book on it.”

“I wouldn't be surprised.”

“But I can't do anything about McKinstry until we find the damned pilot. And I sure as hell don't want to go after that other guy in L.A. if I don't have to.” He closed the folder and lined it up neatly with the other two. “So it looks like the violinist by default. Call the airport and tell them I'll want the jet in an hour, and book me into the same hotel where she's staying.”

“Yes, sir.” His assistant turned to go.

“And Castleberry—call my wife and let her know. Wait until after I'm gone.”

Castleberry nodded and left to make the arrangements.

Strode stood at the window with his hands clasped behind his back and stared at the building on the other side of Forty-seventh Street. In the office directly opposite his a woman bent over her work, unaware she was being scrutinized. But Strode wasn't interested in her; she was a dog. It was the woman in the next office he was looking for … and there she was.

Even from this distance it was clear she was a real dish, and
she
knew when she was being looked at. She was sitting behind an open-front desk when she became aware of Strode's gaze; she looked up, smiled, and slowly crossed her legs for him. Oh, yes—she was used to attention, that one was. A man came into her office and started talking; Strode turned away from the window.

He didn't have a whole lot of time. House of Glass would soon be out of reach.

Strode coveted House of Glass, pretentious name and all. He'd been buying stock wherever he could find it—quietly, without fuss, not at all like his usual juggernaut takeover techniques. And now he was so close—
so
close. All he needed was one more block of stock, just one. One of the three whose folders lay on his desk.

He'd made a straightforward offer to buy and all three had turned him down flat. That was the problem with House of Glass: relatively few outstanding stockholders. When one of them said no and made it stick, there weren't many others to turn to. So he'd raised his offer, and all three said no again.

House of Glass had started out at the beginning of the century as a maker and purveyor of expensive items for those who could afford them—crystalware, stained glass, chandeliers, fancy mirrors. From one small shop in London it had grown into a multibranched specialty chain. Ownership had changed hands several times, with corporate headquarters ending up in New York. Then a California vintner had commissioned House of Glass to design and manufacture a wine bottle with a unique silhouette easily identifiable as the vintner's own. House of Glass expanded its facilities to accommodate the necessities of large-scale bottle-making, and it had been expanding ever since.

The move into the industrial market had been made at exactly the right time; almost everything the company tried ended up making money. Now if you bought an overpriced condominium, the chances were good that the plate-glass windows had been supplied by House of Glass. Almost a third of the American cars on the road had House of Glass windshields. There wasn't a laboratory in the country that hadn't been equipped with at least some test tubes or beakers or pipettes made by House of Glass. House of Glass fiberglass wool provided thermal and sound insulation for everything from factories and airplanes to home refrigerators and furnaces. House of Glass did a lot of work for airports, hotels, shopping malls. House of Glass was trouble.

The first company A. J. Strode had owned was a construction firm, and that's where he'd originally come into contact with House of Glass. He'd been impressed by the low-keyed elegance that enabled the outfit to ask outrageous prices for its wares—and get them. Only twenty-nine years old at the time, Strode had inquired and found that all the stock was privately owned. He let it be known he was interested and since then had picked up a few small blocks of shares when they became available. House of Glass had not been the driving interest in his life; anything that could make money was sufficient to capture his attention.

Money still made money. Over the years Strode bought or traded or tricked or bullied his way into control of a power-tool manufacturer, a grocery chain, a newspaper, a heating-and-cooling outfit, a string of radio and TV stations, a football team (recently and profitably disposed of), five small software companies that he'd merged into one moderate-sized one. Two years earlier he'd acquired the controlling interest in LesterWorks, one of the biggest suppliers of industrial glass in the country.

One reason he'd been able to buy in so easily was that for the last few years House of Glass had been steadily eating into LesterWorks' profits. But when House of Glass took a government contract away from Lester, Strode decided it was time to act. Once he'd gained control, he planned to divert all industrial jobs to his own company. If Lester could make use of House of Glass's facilities, so much the better; if not, he'd shut them down. He'd let House of Glass go on making its pretty crystal decanters and such, as long as they showed a profit. But Strode had made up his mind that House of Glass would steal no more industrial work from him; he'd shut down the whole goddam operation before he'd let that happen.

The phone whirred. “Mrs. Strode's on line two,” his secretary's voice said.

“I'm not here.”

“She's very insistent.”

“I'm still not here.” Strode hung up and went back to the window for another look at the dishy babe in the building across the street. Her office was empty.

He was going to have to do something about Katie; she was getting to be a nuisance. He'd meant to wait until later in the year to tell her, but now he thought he might as well give her the bad news as soon as he got back from Pittsburgh. She knew it was coming anyway. He'd be sixty next year; time for a new wife.

Katie was wife number four. Number one had been Janie, his school sweetheart, whom he'd married on his twentieth birthday. But mousy little Janie hadn't been able to make the transition to the high style of living Strode adopted once he began building his fortune. Strode had pleaded, bullied, cajoled; he'd even hired someone to redo her appearance for her. But he'd never been able to make her understand how important it was for a man to have a classy-looking woman on his arm. Janie was afraid of the world he was moving in now; she was too hesitant, too easily intimidated. Strode had given up and divorced her. To make sure she understood the extent of his displeasure, he'd married his second wife on his thirtieth birthday.

Her name was Mollie, and Mollie had been an indefatigable sex machine. That should have warned him, but he'd been so delighted with their life in bed that it was over a year before he began to suspect he'd married a nympho. There was something abnormal about a woman who enjoyed sex that much. Strode grew suspicious and had special bolts installed in every door in the house, so he could lock Mollie in whatever room she happened to be occupying whenever he left. Even the bathrooms could be locked from the outside. And when the private detective he'd hired had brought in evidence that she was managing to cheat on him in spite of his precautions, he'd been able to get rid of her without having to pay one cent of alimony. Nobody cheated A. J. Strode.

He'd celebrated his fortieth birthday by marrying Suzie. Suzie had been the perfect wife … for a while. She had the face of a movie star, the style sense of a fashion model, the body of a porno queen, and the IQ of a philodendron. Perfect. She asked no questions and she made no demands. But then Suzie had started drinking—in secret at first, then more and more openly, as if wanting to parade her discontent before the world. It didn't help a man's image to have a lush for a wife, and once she'd embarrassed him by showing up drunk at a public function. Once. He'd kicked her out the next day.

To mark the anniversary of his half century on earth, he'd married a sophisticated woman well skilled in the art of hostessing. By then it was a running joke about how A. J. Strode took a new wife every ten years, but Katie had just laughed and said all that was over now. On the whole, she'd done her job well. But as the end of her tenure approached, that polished façade she showed to the world began to slip; behind it, Katie turned out to be almost as insecure as his first wife had been. She'd started pestering him and asking questions, checking up on him and phoning him at the office. He couldn't have that.

Besides, she was starting to get fat.

Janie, Mollie, Suzie, Katie. Strode liked women's names that ended in that
ee
sound. Cute names.

Myron Castleberry came in to say the company jet would be ready by the time Strode got to the airport. “Sure you don't want me to come with you?”

BOOK: He Huffed and He Puffed
12.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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