Authors: Julie Garwood
Tags: #Adult, #Thriller, #Romantic Suspense, #Action Adventure Mystery & Detective
She nodded to let him know she’d heard his apology. She couldn’t speak. She looked into his eyes, tried to smile, then turned and walked away as fast as she could. She took deep, gulping breaths, trying not to gag. Dear God, the stench radiating from him made her eyes tear.
She burst out laughing. When she looked back, he was still watching her. She smiled but turned the corner and began laughing again. The man with the beautiful white teeth reminded her of a childhood trip to the zoo. Her brother Aiden had taken her when she was seven or eight years old. She remembered they’d gone inside a big, gray stone building. It was crowded and musty inside, but at the end of a long aisle was the new gorilla habitat. The finishing touches hadn’t been put on the gorilla’s new home. There was a double set of bars separating the gorilla from the crowd, but a thick, unbreakable Plexiglas pane hadn’t been installed yet. Regan pulled away from Aiden and ran, darting in and out of the crowd to get there before anyone else noticed there was room right in front of his cage. She made it all the way to the first set of bars before the smell knocked her to her knees. The stench was overpowering, and she began to gag. Aiden had to pick her up and carry her outside to fresh air.
She still remembered the horrible odor from the gorilla’s cage. The man she’d just run into smelled much worse.
Laughing about the old memory put her in a much better frame of mind. Unfortunately, her good mood didn’t last long.
She had just left Neiman Marcus and was hurrying down a side street with her briefcase and shopping bag in one hand and her purse in the other when a man twice her size bumped into her. What am I?
Invisible? she thought. Twice in one day men had tried to walk through her.
This one didn’t bother to apologize. In fact, he seemed to deliberately step on her foot. He never looked back as he hurried down the street. Her toe stung where he’d stomped on it, and she walked at a slower pace toward Dickerson’s Bath Shop. The day was only half over and things could improve, she told herself. What good were negative thoughts?
Then she walked into Dickerson’s, and staying positive just wasn’t possible. The salesclerk, a woman wearing the name tag, “Ms. Patsy,” was leaning against the cash register and talking on the phone. She had the receiver cradled in the crook of her shoulder while she filed one of her fingernails.
Ms. Patsy’s face was such a bright red she was obviously worked up about something. She spotted Regan, impatiently waved at her to wait, and continued her conversation. The woman was in her late fifties or early sixties, but she was babbling on the phone like a teenager. She was apparently talking to a friend, filling her in on the latest gossip she’d heard about another woman named Jennifer. Regan wasn’t trying to listen in, but she couldn’t help overhearing a little of what she was saying, and she was appalled by the woman’s cruel remarks.
Regan moved down to the end of the glass counter so she wouldn’t have to listen, and after waiting for several minutes, she picked up the bottle of lotion and turned to go to another counter. Ms. Patsy shouted to her to wait, hung up the phone, and rang up the sale. Resentment simmered in her sour expression as she handed the package to Regan, and without a word, walked away. Regan was astonished by the woman’s rudeness.
She was actually relieved to get back to the hotel and her office, but the day didn’t get better. She spent the rest of the afternoon putting out one fire after another.
She worked until six, then ran up to her suite to freshen up, and was back downstairs by the door waiting for Cordie by six-fifteen. Her friend arrived by cab, which meant the old Ford was on the fritz again. Regan called for her car before going outside to greet her friend.
“What is it this time? The radiator?”
“Muffler,” Cordie called out as she crossed the pavement. “I’ll buy a new one tomorrow and install it this weekend.”
When Regan’s car was brought around, the doorman rushed to hold the door open.
“I know what you’re thinking, Terry,” Regan said as she slid behind the wheel of her fifteen-year-old Chevy.
The doorman grinned. “You really should think about trading it in.”
“Are you kidding? It’s in mint condition.” Cordie had leaned across the bench to offer her comment.
Sophie wasn’t waiting out in front of her apartment building when they pulled up. They had to circle the block three times before she appeared. Regan had been telling Cordie about the rest of her horrid day and how she was losing faith in her fellow man, but once Sophie got in the car, Regan didn’t get in another word on the drive to Liam House, ten miles away.
The parking lot adjacent to the conference center was fall, so Regan circled the park, looking for a space. The dim lighting made it difficult for her to see. Sophie was directing from the backseat. “There’s one… no that’s a driveway. Never mind. Keep going.”
“Look at that idiot jogging down the middle of the street. Is he trying to get killed?” Cordie said.
“I’ve got to start running again,” Sophie said. “I’ll run with you, Regan, on the university path.”
“I don’t go there anymore,” Regan said. “Not since the indoor track was finished at the hotel. It’s much more convenient.”
“I’d work out more often if I had a gym in my house,” Cordie said.
“When have you ever worked out?” Sophie asked.
“I work out,” Cordie countered. “I just don’t do it consistently.” Sophie laughed. “If you’d only get into shape, you wouldn’t have to diet all the—” Cordie cut her off. “You were going to tell us your big plan.”
Cordie patiently repeated the reminder. “Oh, my God,” Sophie said. “I forgot.” Regan looked at her in the mirror. “You forgot your big plan?”
“No, I forgot to tell you what happened today. You’re not going to believe it.”
“So tell us,” Cordie demanded.
“Mary Coolidge’s neighbor finally called me back. I’ve left at least ten messages for the man over the past couple of weeks and was about to give up, but as it turned out, he was out of town, and that’s why he didn’t call.”
“And?” Cordie prodded.
“You know that Shields always has two assistants flanking his sides?”
“Yes,” Regan said. “Mary wrote about them in her journal.”
“They’re really his goons.”
“Goons? Who says ‘goons’ these days?” Cordie asked with a laugh.
“Mary’s neighbor,” Sophie said. “He called them goons. Now, pay attention. Mary told her daughter that Shields said he’d hired the two men as bodyguards. She was afraid of them and said they seemed to enjoy intimidating people. They even went so far as to wear sunglasses day and night.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Regan said.
She spotted a car backing out of a parking space, put her blinker on, and pulled in.
“So what did the neighbor say?” Cordie asked. She was getting a crick in her neck looking at Sophie.
“He was letting his cat in when he saw two men walking up Mary’s drive.” Regan turned the motor off. “And you think they went to her house to threaten her?” Sophie nodded. “This is all speculation, but…”
“But what?” Regan asked.
“But I think she told Shields she was going to the police, and he sent his goons to dissuade her.”
“I guess that’s possible,” Cordie said. “But it’s going to be tough to prove.”
“Does the neighbor remember when the men were there?” Regan asked.
“He’s pretty sure they were there the night Mary killed herself. I think they went there to terrorize her, and she thought that taking the pills was the only way out. Either that or…”
“Jeez, Sophie, quit making us guess,” Cordie said. “Or what?” In a near whisper, Sophie said, “Maybe they forced her to take those pills, and they stayed there until she was unconscious.”
Regan shook her head. “Think about it, Sophie. What was the last entry in her journal?” Cordie answered. “Too late. They’re coming.”
“And the handwriting was pretty loopy, wasn’t it?”
“It was all over the page,” Cordie said, “suggesting that Mary had already ingested pills.”
“Unless they forced her to take some pills, then let her have a break so she could jot down a few thoughts in her journal, and then forced her to take more, I’d have to say…”
“Okay, that theory doesn’t hold up,” Sophie said. “But if Shields’s men went there to threaten her…”
“That would be very difficult to prove,” Regan said.
“If we got a photo of the bodyguards and showed it to this neighbor…” Cordie began.
Sophie slapped the headrest behind Cordie. “That’s exactly what I was thinking. Only, the thing is…”
“Yes?” Regan asked.
“The neighbor isn’t so sure he could recognize them,” she said. “He told me he didn’t get a real good look at their faces, but I still want to show him a photo just in case.”
“So that’s it? That’s the big plan? Get a photo of the goons?” Cordie asked. “We could just drive up to the circle drive, sit in the car, and when they come out, snap, snap. We’ve got our photos.”
“No, there’s more,” Sophie said. “First, we go in and I pay our fees.”
“You’re not paying for me,” Regan said.
“You’re not paying my fee either,” Cordie said.
“You’re doing me a huge favor. You’re giving up your weekend to help, so no more argument. Paying the fees is the least I can do as a thank-you. I’m going to pay in cash,” she added in an attempt to deflect further argument. “I don’t want Shields or his people to have access to any accounts, so I don’t want to pay by check or credit card.”
“Good Lord. Are you telling me you’re carrying three thousand dollars in your purse?” Sophie grinned. “There wasn’t room in my bra, so, yes, it’s in my purse.”
“Who carries that kind of cash around?” Cordie asked Regan.
“Apparently Sophie does,” she answered.
“My father carries ten times that amount in cash all the time,” Sophie commented.
“Soph, how can you afford to pay three thousand dollars?” Cordie asked. “You make less than I do.”
“You told me last month you weren’t ever going to take any more money from him, remember? You were determined to make it on your own.”
“It was an early birthday present,” Sophie said. “He just purchased another vacation home, and for tax purposes put that one in my name too. Daddy has enough money stashed away to last three lifetimes.”
Although they had known Sophie since kindergarten and were her best friends, Regan and Cordie still didn’t know what her father actually did for a living. Every time one of them asked him, he came up with a different answer. Either he was changing occupations once a month, or he was making it up as he went along. For a long time, Regan thought he was in banking, and Cordie believed he was a real estate mogul. Now that they were older and had heard all the rumors and speculation, they knew Sophie’s father was into some shady dealings. He was always cooking up one scheme after another, and they now worried that it was only a matter of time before one of his schemes backfired.
Regan worried about Sophie. As sophisticated as her friend considered herself to be, she was horribly naive about her father. And extremely protective.
Cordie looked as if she wanted to continue to argue. Regan, determined to get her friends back on track, asked, “What’s the plan once we’re inside the conference center?”
“We join the reception and… look around.”
Regan glanced at Cordie. “What do you mean ‘look around’?” she asked.
“Yes,” Cordie said. “Exactly what are we looking for?”
Sophie grabbed her purse and opened the back door. “His computer. I’ve done some checking and know the registrations and records are computerized. I also found out he carries a laptop computer with him and I’m hoping that sometime this weekend we can get to it.”
“Uh-oh, I don’t like the sound of that,” Cordie said.
“You can’t be thinking about breaking into his computer,” Regan said, appalled at the idea.
Sophie laughed. She waited until both of her friends had gotten out of the car before answering. “No, of course not. I don’t have the skill to break into his computer. Cordie will have to do it.”
“No way. I’m not doing anything illegal.”
“I need to get into his records,” Sophie argued. “It’s the only way I can find out about the other women he’s scammed.”
“His bodyguards aren’t going to let any of us near his computer,” Regan said.
“We’ve got all weekend to try.”
“Sophie, please tell me there’s more to the plan than breaking the law,” Regan said.
“Of course there is,” Sophie said. “We’re here to investigate. We’re going to talk to every person who signed up, and maybe someone knows something that will help us.”
“Like what?” Cordie asked.
“Like who Shields has been seeing,” she said. “We have to play this by ear.”
“Sounds like we’re playing it by the seat of our pants,” Cordie said.
“How does she talk us into these things?” Regan asked. She was trying not to laugh.
“She always makes her plans sound… reasonable.”
“Hello. I’m right here. I can hear every word you’re saying.” Cordie and Regan ignored her. “It’s a lousy way to spend the weekend,” Cordie complained.
“But it’s for a good cause,” Sophie said. “And it’s too late to back out.” Cordie looked up at the sky. “It’s going to rain. Damn, my hair’s going to frizz.”
“Are we going to stand here all night or what?” Regan asked.
Cordie and Sophie took the lead across the dark parking lot. Regan’s knee was throbbing, so she walked at a more sedate pace, trying not to limp. She cursed herself for wearing impractical shoes.
“Slow down,” Cordie said. “Regan’s having trouble with her knee again. When are you going to get that surgery?”
“Soon,” she said. So they wouldn’t nag her into doing what she wasn’t ready to do, she switched subjects. “My car needs an oil change. Are you up to it, Cordie?”
“Sure. I’ll do it next weekend.”
Sophie rolled her eyes. “You spend more time under the hood of a car than a mechanic, Cordie. I swear, I’m never going to understand the two of you. You can afford any car you want, and yet you both drive old heaps. But then, I guess we know why Regan keeps her heap.”