Deadly Farce

Chapter One

 

As I rushed along the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, the early morning breeze off the ocean filled my nose with the stench of summer seaweed and blew my hair into my eyes. My old pal Shepard had called at somebody-better-be-dead o’clock and begged me to meet him on set down in Jersey. I begged him to let me go back to sleep. When he said it was a matter of life and death, I dragged my body out of bed and headed for the shore. Despite building a career as an actor, he wasn’t known for being dramatic.

On the Boardwalk a crowd had gathered behind a line of sawhorses and stood gawking at the film crew beyond, no doubt hoping for a glimpse of someone famous. Heedless of any sort of first-come, first-see rules, I pushed my way to the front, ducked a sawhorse, and walked towards a guy wearing a lanyard heavy with pass-cards. He clenched a clipboard in his hands and juggled a stack of papers and a walkie-talkie.

His eyes popped when he saw me, as though he couldn’t believe I’d dare violate the sawhorse barricade. Several papers slipped to the ground, and he stomped his foot on them to stop them from blowing away. “You can’t come this way, ma’am,” he said.

Ma’am? I hadn’t even hit thirty. “Yes I can.” I pulled my shiny Diamond Security Services badge from the back pocket of my jeans and did my Joe Friday. “Tell me where I can find Shepard Brown.”

His adam’s apple rose and fell at the glint of the shield. My good fortune this guy didn’t know cop from square badge. “I don’t think—”

“Look,” I began. The wind kept blowing my hair into the corners of my mouth and I worried pushing it away would undercut my authority. Joe Friday wouldn’t have cared about hair in his mouth, right? “Mr. Brown is expecting me,” I said. “Would you like to be the one who makes me late?”

“Oh, I ….”

“I suggest you make up your mind quickly.” I slipped the tin back into my pocket and glared and tried to ignore my hair.

“The … uh … trailers are on the other side.” He pointed his clipboard toward the gleaming white façade of a towering hotel. “Someone up that way will be able to find him for sure.”

I thanked him and left him struggling with his paperwork. On an ordinary day I would have stayed to help. But this wasn’t an ordinary day. No day with Shepard Brown in it had a chance of being ordinary.

I’d learned that lesson way back when. During an after-school outing to the skating rink, I had unintentionally freed him from the locker in which he had been trapped. Truth was, the boys’ hockey team had folded him into my locker. All I wanted were my mittens. But from that moment on, nothing I said altered Shepard’s belief in me as his heroic defender. And I repeated the role time and again on every non-ordinary day, until the scrawny kid he had once been hit puberty—and the weight machines—with a vengeance. No doubt Shepard was part of the reason I was attempting to forge a career in executive protection.

Smoothing my tank top against my belly, I strode toward the hive of activity consuming a 200-foot stretch of the boardwalk. All manner of persons scurried around the area, carrying all variety of equipment. In the heart of the chaos, a cluster of people stood in a tight circle. My razor-sharp, Maxwell Smart–like powers of observation told me the director was the guy in the center of it all, gesticulating madly while the wind and ocean made off with his words. A tiny bit of admiration rushed through me. If I could control a crowd with the skill of a Hollywood director, protecting a dignitary would be a million times simpler.

I drew level with the discount shop, where Holly Bellinger, modern Hollywood glam, lounged against an empty rolling chair and spooned a cup of yogurt into her mouth with remarkable speed. But no one else showed any sign of urgency, or gave any indication things were other than normal. Crewmen wandered in and out of the shot with light meters, measuring tape, and extension cords, but Holly ignored them and focused on her yogurt. Whatever prompted Shepard’s panicked phone call appeared unique to him alone.

One of the crewmen caught me gaping and placed himself in my path. “Help you?” he asked. He had faded blond hair, a scraggly beard that likely had sand caught in it, and a warm blue gaze. The gold-stitched name above the studio logo on the breast of his windbreaker read dutch.

“Looking for Shepard. He around?”

Dutch took me by the shoulders and turned me forty-five degrees to face the entrance to the Steel Pier. “Skee-Ball,” he said.

Huh. Fifteen million a picture and the guy was playing Skee-Ball.

I nodded my thanks and pounded further along the Boardwalk in search of Shepard.

Several yard shy of the Steel Pier, I spied a lanky figure casting a long shadow between the midway game stalls lining the entrance to the pier. The man of the hour, all in one piece. Relief allowed me the first full breath I’d drawn in hours.

Hands jammed into his pockets, Shepard loped more than walked. The wind pinned a lock of dark brown hair against his forehead and draped it in front of one eye. He pushed the hair away and smiled the smile magazine publishers had fallen in love with.

“Rainny!” he shouted.

I returned his smile and more than tolerated the bear hug he caught me in.

“Thanks for coming,” he said.

“No problem.” I stood back to look at him. Same floppy hair, same green eyes, same heartbreaking grin—different general shape. “You put on some weight?” I asked, fulfilling my duties as queen of tact.

“Yeah, it’s for the part.” He draped his arm around my shoulders and turned me away from the pier. We did the small talk thing as we walked across the Boardwalk and down the ramp to street level. A string of trailers hummed curbside along the closed road, looking like a parking lot at an RV enthusiasts’ convention.

“You wanna tell me why I’m here?” I asked, following him to his trailer.

“I got a problem,” he said. “Come inside.”

He opened the door and gestured me past, and I preceded him up the portable steel steps into the body of the trailer.

The entry dumped me into the road version of the dining room—all blue and wood and once-white—and I blinked at the unexpected sight of a young man gathering bound scripts from the table and talking to himself.

“I inherited it from a man who was not the real Dread Pirate Roberts, either. No, that’s not it. The man I was not who—” He froze, arms full of screenwriters’ children, eyes on the door. Evidently he’d caught sight of Shepard entering behind me. “Morning, Mr. Brown,” he said.

“That’s my assistant, Matthew,” Shepard said. “Matthew, this is Lorraine.”

Matthew lowered the stack of scripts to the table and squared their corners. “Can I get you something, sir? Anything I can do for you?”

Shepard sighed as though greatly put upon. “Coffee. Large. Half decaf. Toffee-flavored cream with some cinnamon sprinkled on top. And none of that white sugar. Get me the brown, unrefined stuff.”

His housekeeper, personal assistant, and paid slave nodded several times and scurried past us out the door.

I scowled at Shepard. “Are you a bigger jerk than the tabloids give you credit for?”

Not that I read tabloids, mind you. But my best pal, Barb, read them religiously and persisted in calling me at work to regale me with the latest gossip. It meant she forgave me for never introducing her to Shepard, so I listened and maintained the truce.

He peered out the narrow window beside the door, head turning as he tracked some movement – likely Matthew – outside the trailer. “I had to get rid of him. He might be in on it.”

Safe behind Shepard’s back, I rolled my eyes. “Anyone who misquotes The Princess Bride probably isn’t in on much. And I know I’m going to regret this but I came all the way down here to hear it, so, in on what?”

He turned to me and his brow creased with concern. “I think someone’s trying to kill me.”

As a bodyguard and private investigator I was trained to take that sort of thing seriously, but I still had trouble keeping back the giggles. I mean, come on. This was Shepard Brown. Who would go to the trouble of killing him? “Why?” I asked. “Have you contracted to do a Michael Moore–type exposé on greed and corruption at Hollywood studios?”

His lips pressed white and his green eyes burned. “This is serious,” he said. “Come look at this.”

He took hold of my arm and dragged me into the kitchen.

“It’s not a big place, Brown. I saw the kitchen from the dining room.”

“In here,” he said. He yanked open the refrigerator and pulled out a pizza box. He dropped it on the counter, and I read the logo upside-down. If you believe what you read, he’d bought the best pizza this side of Sicily.

“You’re right,” I said. “Pizza’s serious business.”

With a theatrical sigh, he turned to face me. “You know, I called you because I thought you’d be the one person in the world who would take me seriously.”

Eesh. Guilt and the after-burn of strong coffee rolled through my stomach. “Oh. Thanks, I guess. And … sorry.”

“Fuhgettaboutit,” he said. And he nailed the accent. Really nailed it.

Guess the guy could act after all.

“So what’s up with the ‘za?” I asked.

He flipped open the lid and pointed.

No slices were missing from the pie, but the bulk of the cheese had migrated to the southern hemisphere.

“Wow,” I said, eyeing the cheese. “That is criminal.”

His exhale could be measured in whole-number decibels. “Under the cheese, Sherlock.”

I did a quick scan of the kitchen, grabbed a slotted spoon from its peg above the stove, and used it to lift some cheese. Firm red lumps appeared to be embedded in the dough beneath.

“Odd,” I said. “What are the lumpy things?”

“Peanuts,” Shepard said.

“Gross. Who puts peanuts on pizza?”

I swear I heard his eyes roll. “Someone who’s trying to kill me. I’m allergic to peanuts. If I eat a peanut, I could go into anaphylactic shock and die.”

Sixteen thousand wisecracks rolled through my brain. I refrained from voicing any of them. At the end of the day, Shepard was an old friend and a potential client. And peanuts might be a lame attempt at murder but they didn’t get into the dough by accident. The queasy feeling curling the edges of my stomach had more to do with gut instinct than revulsion at the nuts in tomato sauce.

“Have you spoken to the police?” I asked. I brought it up because Diamond Security requires its agents to, not because anyone really wanted the police nosing around too soon.

“Please. The police would be less tolerant than you are,” he said, and guilt overwhelmed my belly again. “They’d laugh their badges off and call The Star National and it would really suck to have to die to prove to everyone I was right.”

I took a deep breath and flipped the lid on the box closed. “Okay,” I said. “Give it to me from the beginning.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Two

 

Shepard leaned against the door of the fridge, his long legs crossed at the ankle, and told me the story of how he’d come to order a pizza at two o’clock in the morning. For an actor, he should have made the tale more dramatic.

“So your assistant went and got it instead of having it delivered, right?” I prompted. “Did you ask him about the peanuts?”

He scowled. “And what would he say if he’s in on it? If I ask him, then I tip my hand that I know something’s going on.”

“Really? But not eating the pizza you sent him out for in the dead of night isn’t suspicious?”

He waved a hand. “I do that all the time,” he said. His nonchalant confession made me want to punch him.

To distract myself from thoughts of assault, I closed up the pizza box and made sure all the flaps slid snug inside the base. Though I’d feel like an idiot bringing a peanut-laden pizza into the lab, I needed to know if any other foreign matter lurked in the ‘za. Plus, I could bill Shepard for the cost. Provided he’d called to hire me as a bodyguard and not as a food taster.

“Let me put this back,” I said, lifting the carton.

Someone pounded on the trailer door as Shepard straightened and stepped into my path. “Aren’t you going to take that with you? Have it tested or something?” he asked.

“Yes, I am, but I’m not leaving right away. I’ve got to talk to your assistant first.”

More banging on the door, this time coupled with a deep, southern voice. “Shepard, you wuss, open the door.”

“Are you sure you should talk to Matthew?” Shepard asked. “I’m telling you, he might be the one trying to kill me.”

“Hell, you made him get you pizza at two o’clock in the morning. I might try to kill you, too.” I smiled, just in case he had second thoughts about my dedication to his continued long life.

“Shepard!” the man outside called, and pounded some more.

“Are you going to …” I said, pointing uselessly toward the door. Shepard Brown no more answered his own door than he did his own mail. With the loudest huff I could manage, I dropped the pizza back onto the counter, skirted around Shepard, and stomped to the door.

I banged it open with the side of my fist and hiccupped in surprise at the man waiting on the other side. Sandy hair, black T-shirt, and torn blue jeans, he smiled an easygoing, we’re-all-friends smile. I couldn’t stop myself from smiling in return.

“Hiya,” he said. He squinted a bit, but the blue of his eyes shone through. “Shepard around?”

“Come on in, Eddie,” Shepard called.

Holding on to my smile, I stood back to allow Eddie Gale to enter. The tingle I got as he brushed past me had nothing to do with the familiarity of his leading man smile and everything to do with the clean, manly scent of him. And I was supposed to focus on a  peanut pie?

He stopped inside the trailer and looked back at me, his brow narrow with intrigue. “I don’t know you,” he said.

By some miracle, Shepard remembered his manners and introduced me while I tried to mentally collect myself.

“A pleasure,” Eddie said. He took my hand in both of his, his grip strong and warm. A distinctly feminine flush dashed across my cheeks.

“Likewise,” I said, happy for once that my flustered voice ran more to the husky, breathless end of the spectrum.

He held my hand and held my eyes as though the contact would solve some puzzle troubling  his mind. Looking over my shoulder to where Shepard stood, he said, “I’m not … uh … ?” A slight hand motion added “interrupting something” to his question.

“Who, us?” Shepard asked. “No. No. Lorraine’s an old friend. Can I get you something?”

Amazement shot through me as Shepard crossed into the kitchen, opened the fridge, and began reciting its contents as though he intended to serve. For crying out loud, he hadn’t even offered me a place to sit down.

“Ooh,” Eddie said, eyes bright. “Anything left in that pizza box?”

Shepard glared, bug-eyed. Evidently, he needed some work on his improvisational skills.

“Oh, that … um … that’s been sitting out all night,” I said. “You don’t want that.”

“I don’t?” Eddie said.

He looked at me with such focused attention I thought he might bore a hole through me. My knees felt like ice in the sun, and a bead of sweat slithered down my spine. “No,” I managed. “You don’t.”

He smiled. “All right,” he said. “How about some coffee?”

The door banged open and slammed me out of my trance. A woman with wild blond hair stood in the doorway, eyes wide with fury. My instinct labeled her as “threat.”

“Shepard, you son of a bitch!” she shouted.

Left-handed, I shoved hard against Eddie’s chest. He staggered backwards, and I sidestepped quickly to stand in front of Shepard. Eyes on the door, my fingers curled around the waistband of my jeans, right where my gun should be. Cursed Jersey laws left me unarmed.

One foot on the doorstep, the blond lifted herself into the trailer, and in the light I recognized Catherine Dawes. Gorgeous, British, and somewhat left of sane. “How could you?” she shrieked.

Shepard stepped out from behind me and pressed his hand against the air in a ‘down girl’ motion. “Hold it, hold it,” he said. Uncertain whether he meant me or Catherine, I kept my hand under my shirt as though I clutched a weapon. Not that this would fool anyone with a brain, mind you. But Catherine Dawes had never been known for her intellect.

Shepard leaned on his hands against the narrow counter and regarded her with the same attention he paid to dust. “What do you want, Catherine?”

She clutched a sheaf of papers and waved them at Shepard. “How could you do this? To me?”

“Catherine—”

“Don’t you ‘Catherine’ me, you ignorant backwater peasant.” She took a step in his direction, so naturally I did, too. “You won’t get away with this.”

“Now hold on,” Eddie said, getting his feet back under him.

I’d shoved Eddie Gale. Oh, lovely. Heckuva first impression. Barb would laugh herself sick when I told her—you know, before she strangled me for not bringing her along.

“What’s going on here?” Eddie asked.

“This … this … blackguard—” Catherine began.

“Blackguard? Blackguard?” Shepard said. “What script did you get that out of?”

“You’re a fine one to talk.” She brandished the papers once more. “Can’t even think for yourself. You’ve hired people to think for you. To do your dirty work.”

Figuring Catherine as angry but harmless, I eased my hand out from under my shirt, eased away from Shepard. Eddie’s gaze rested on me rather than Catherine. I shrugged and tried a weak smile. Given the confusion creasing his brow, I doubted he understood my action as an apology.

“I don’t hire … I do my own dirty work,” Shepard said.

“Why doesn’t someone just tell us what’s going on?” Eddie said.

“I—”

“This … scum’s attorney has sent me notice.” Eyes blazing, she attempted to straighten the papers against her thigh. “I am to cease and desist – cease and desist – or they will be forced to pursue a restraining order.”

“For what?” Eddie asked. “What have you been doing?”

“I’ll tell you what she’s been doing,” Shepard said. “She’s been—”

“He’s lying!”

“He hasn’t said anything,” Eddie said over a laugh.

“He’s lied to me from the beginning,” she said.

Now this was drama. I hoped Shepard was taking notes.

He stood, scowled and shoved the sleeves of his shirt up over his elbows. “I never lied to you.”

“You always lied. You’re lying still!”

“Now, there’s no need to shout,” Eddie said. “It’s not as if there’s a lot of space here.”

“I never lied.”

Catherine lifted her head and pushed the hair out of her eyes. A deep breath shuddered past her lips. “Everything you say is a lie,” she said, holding up the papers. “And now you have Wilkinson, Hershowitz, and Klein believing you.”

“Oh, they’re good,” Eddie said, and Shepard nodded.

But Catherine fixed her searing gaze on me and narrowed her eyes millimeter by millimeter. “And just who are you? His latest bit on the side?”

I opened my mouth, but she didn’t stop long enough for me to get a word out.

“You think I’m raving mad. Don’t you? Admit it. You think I’m a nutter.”

The thought had crossed my mind. But I had a job to do. Maybe. It might be in my best interest to keep relations between myself and the Psycho Brit cordial. “No, Miss Dawes, I don’t think you’re crazy.”

Her nostrils flared and she jerked her chin up as though something distasteful had wafted her way. “Why should I believe you? You’re obviously taken with this wanker,” she said.

Behind her, the trailer door opened and Matthew stepped into view. Laden with a cardboard take-away tray holding three coffee cups, he eased his way up the stairs. The divine aroma of gourmet brew filled the area.

“Well I have news for you, all of you,” Catherine said, wielding the papers. “I’ve got my own attorneys. And you’ll have them to answer to, I can assure you.”

Glaring at Shepard, she executed a neat about-face and ran hard up against Matthew. Coffee streamed from the upturned carrier. Matthew gasped. Catherine shrieked. And behind me, Eddie Gale failed to suppress a chuckle.

“You stupid, stupid fool,” Catherine said. “You did that on purpose. Look at my shoes. Just look at them. Out of my way, you insignificant little man.”

She shoved Matthew out of her path and stomped out of the trailer while he wheezed and struggled to get his shirt off. Steam rose from its folds and curled in the breeze from the door.

“What’s her problem?” Matthew gasped, carefully rolling his sodden shirt into a ball.

I eyed Shepard, and he crossed his arms, shrugged. “She’s … got issues.”

“That’s putting it mildly,” Eddie said.

Matthew bent to retrieve the empty coffee cups from the floor and, with assistance from Eddie and me, managed to clear away the physical mess Catherine Dawes had made.

Shepard huffed. “I really wanted that coffee.”

Matthew looked at Shepard with a poorly concealed mixture of disgust and disbelief and went off to his hotel room to change into a clean shirt and dry pants.

With Eddie occupied wiping splattered coffee from the window, I cornered Shepard in the kitchen. “Look,” I whispered, “I need to know what’s going on with you and Catherine.”

“Jealous?”

“Painfully.” I took a breath. “Shepard, what am I doing here?”

“I need you here.”

“In what capacity?”

“We’ll go over it.” He shot a quick glance over his shoulder. “Not now, though, okay? I gotta get to makeup. I’m due. Stick around. We’ll talk when I’m done on the set.”

“No, Shepard –”

“Eddie,” he said, moving away from me. “I gotta go to work.”

And what did he expect me to do in the meantime? Collect autographs? Fetch him more coffee? Hit the slots at the Taj? Maybe I could find some gossip columnists beyond the barricades who knew what lay at the root of the Shepard-Catherine conflict. Or maybe I should just put in a call to Barb.

“You sure? No time for a replacement cup of coffee?” Eddie said, shaking the hand Shepard offered. “I wanted to run something by you.”
“Can’t, man. Besides”—he tipped his head in my direction—“I got company.”

“That’s fine. Happy to have her along.” Eddie shrugged. “I don’t have any national secrets to divulge.”

“Well, walk over with us then,” Shepard said.

I followed Eddie out of the trailer and stopped outside and waited for Shepard to lock the door. But he came down the steps and stood silently beside me as though waiting for me to lead the way.

I opened my mouth, hoping words would follow in a timely fashion.

“What?” he said. “What are we waiting for?”

“Aren’t you going to lock that?” I asked.

He glanced at the trailer and shrugged. “What for? There’s nothing in there. Why would I lock it?”

I lifted my hands in surrender. “Hey, no reason. I suppose it’s easier this way. You can come and go as you please—”

“Yes, I can.”

“Yeah, good. Matthew, too. And me, come to think of it. You know, and if Catherine wanted to leave you any love notes—”

Shepard scrunched his eyes shut and pinched his lips together. “Okay. I get it. I’ll get a key.”

“What do you mean a key?” Eddie said over a chuckle. “What do you need a key for?”

Shepard squared his shoulders. “Rainny says I need one.”

A soft O rounded Eddie’s lips. He narrowed his gaze, squinting at Shepard and me in turn. “Maybe I should catch up with you later. Seems you got a few things to work out. But you best listen to this lady,” he said, without a hint of humor. “Get a key.”

With a soft grin and a twitch that might have been a wink, he turned and strolled back toward the Boardwalk.

We both watched him go, the rumble of the RV air-conditioning motors filling our silence. Eddie had a really great swagger. And I only got to appreciate it live because Shepard had sent him on his way.

It suddenly became very important to me to find the guy who wanted to kill Shepard. Because I wanted to help.

* * * * *

While Shepard relaxed in the makeup trailer getting pretty, I surveyed the environment— mentally cataloging building heights, site acces,s and the constant, chaotic foot traffic on the film set. Ceaseless movement and enough unknown faces to fill the stands at a Knicks game set my nerves on edge. How could I possibly do a threat assessment in a place like that?

I could have started by calling Barb and getting the dish on Shepard’s relationship with Catherine Dawes, but I lacked a cell phone. I’d had one – right up until an involuntary swim during a Fourth of July beach party. Someday I’d get around to replacing the phone. Till then, I relied on pay phones and face-to-face discourse. How barbaric.

At the sound of a hammer on nails I shifted my attention from the rooftops to the vacant parking lot beside me that the film crew had cordoned off. Holly Bellinger clacked toward me in shoes with heels so narrow they might have been made of straight pins. My toes twinged in sympathy.

She approached with her head turned slightly to the side, announcing her suspicion by watching me from the corner of her eyes. Finally close enough to address me, she lifted her chin in a mute rendition of “hey, you”. Aloud she said, “Who are you?”

She had to be talking to me – after all, she hadn’t taken her eyes off of me – but still I glanced around, trying to spy someone more likely to be the object of her attention. “Who, me?”

“I saw you before.” She stopped less than two feet before me, near enough to encroach on my personal space and make my backing off a sign of weakness. I stayed put.

Even in five-inch stilettos she stood only a couple inches taller than my sneaker-clad five-foot-six, making her work hard to achieve the challenging glare she angled down at me.

“You were standing around staring while they were lighting my shot. And you don’t belong here,” she said.

Interesting. “How do you know I haven’t been here all along?” I asked.

“I pay attention. Now are you going to tell me who you are or am I going to have to call security?”

The fact that they had security surprised me; I had seen no indication of protection. Either Holly B. was more observant than me—a deeply frightening thought—or there were too few members of the security team to make an impact.

I answered her question as truthfully as I dared without tipping my hand. “I’m a friend of Shepard Brown’s,” I said.

“You’re lying. Shepard doesn’t have female friends,” she said. “He has ex-girlfriends who hate him and one-night stands who want him back.”

“Really? Which category do you fall into?”

“We’re not talking about me, we’re talking about you.”

“I told you I’m a friend.”

“Which is a lie.”

“So nice to see we’re making progress. Go in and ask him,” I said. “He’s right inside. Maybe you’ll get lucky and he’ll be naked.”

An irritated pinching around the eyes made me think she wouldn’t find that prospect appealing, which actually I found rather endearing.

“Fine.” She struggled to pull a haughty demeanor into place but circled wide around me on her way to the trailer entrance. “I’ll just ask him then.”

I turned to wave at her retreating figure. In so doing I spotted Dutch, the crewman whom I had spoken with earlier, whistling as he rounded the corner. A coil of electrical cord hung from his shoulder. His gaze met mine and his whistle faded away.

I smiled but his nervous glancing – at everything but me – indicated his displeasure  at my presence. He scuttled toward me, shoulders hunched. “You shouldn’t be here,” he said.

Oh, here we go again.

“I never should have let you pass before.” He hiked the electrical cord higher on his shoulder.

“You don’t look like a security guard,” I said. I realize this is a bit of Mrs. Kettle and Mr. Pot,
but ….

“I’m not, but we all help out where we can. So I’m afraid I have to ask you to leave.”

“I’m not leaving.”

“Now don’t make this difficult, all right? You’re going to have to leave.”

“I can’t leave. I’m waiting for Shepard. If I’m not here when he comes out of this trailer, they’re not going to get a decent day’s work out of him.” I didn’t know if this my absence would affect Shepard in any way, but the implication sounded good.

He shook his head slowly, the ends of his pale blond beard grazing his shirt. “Sorry, but I don’t know that you’re not lying. There’s a lot of women would like to get their hands on Mr. Brown.”

As repulsive as that sounded, it was true. Millions of women across the nation thought Shepard was the greatest thing since call waiting. Thank God I wasn’t one of them.

Sighing, I reached into my pocket.

“You can’t bribe me,” he warned.

I gave Dutch a tight smile and presented him with my badge and ID. “I’m here to make your job easier,” I said. “You worry about … whatever it is you worry about … and I’ll make sure no one gets their hands on Shepard without his permission, okay?”

He ignored the badge but took my ID in hand. “Diamond Security, Executive Protection and On-Site Guard Force. Sounds important,” he said, reading from the ID. He squinted at the little photo glued to the corner, then squinted at me for comparison. “You’re blond in this picture,” he said. “I like the brown better.”

“Gosh, thanks.”

“You’re welcome, Ms. Keys.”

“It’s just Lorraine, okay?”

“Okay.” He handed me back the ID case and smiled. “Stay for today,” he said. “But if you’re coming back tomorrow, make sure Mr. Brown arranges a passcard for you.”

“I don’t think Mr. Brown is capable of arranging anything on his own,” I mumbled.

Dutch laughed, knocked me sideways when he patted me on the shoulder, and continued on his way.

As he resumed his whistling, Holly emerged from the trailer exit and started down the steel steps. She pitched slightly forward, balancing her weight on her toes to keep the heels of her shoes from catching in the grating. She tried to toss her hair but it was lacquered motionless, so she huffed, rolled her eyes, and came to stand beside me, this time keeping a respectable distance.

“Shepard says you’re just friends,” she said.

I wanted to say ‘I told you so’ so badly I bit my lip.

“He also says you’ve known one another since grade school and I should be nice to you.”

“Well, tha—”

“So what size dress do you wear?”

“Sorry?”

“Dresses. What size? I asked my assistant to send me the cocktail dresses I keep in the blue garment bag, but she sent the royal blue garment bag instead of the navy blue garment bag, and the navy blue garment bag has a dress and a couple of blouses and jackets that don’t fit me after my last enhancement procedure. I planned to give them to the thrift shop, but they might fit you in which case my assistant will have done a good thing instead of something I should fire her for. So what size?”

Huh. There was a difference between royal blue and navy blue?

“My dress, uh … ,” I said.

Holly shrugged. “Well, you’ll let me know. Shepard said you’d be staying around for the next few days so we’ll work something out. I have to get back inside now.” She pressed her fingers to her nose, where a spray of freckles shone through her foundation. “I’m flaking.”

This time she smiled and waved as she went by, and I wondered what Shepard had said to make her turnaround so complete. Looked like I’d have time to find out. Shepard told her I’d be staying around.

Guess that meant I was on the job—for better or worse.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Three

 

Shepard emerged from the makeup trailer looking just like himself, only intensified. “This way,” he said.

I hustled after him, trying to keep pace. “Why are we hurrying?” I asked.

“I’m late.”

“You were late before. Why are we rushing now?”

“I gotta beat Holly up there. I bet her twenty bucks.” He took the ramp up to the Boardwalk at double-time, long legs making the movement effortless.

“Hey what did you say to her anyway?” The metal railing burned beneath my hand, and I peered at the sky in some surprise. The haze that muted the sky earlier had burned off and left behind an endless, washy blue, and the promise of a scorching day ahead.

“Told her we’re old friends,” Shepard said, flashing a grin.

“No, about me staying.”

He waited for me at the top of the ramp. “You are staying, right?”

I pushed my hair back off my forehead, wishing for a taste of the wind that had irritated me earlier. “Let’s get this on the table right now, okay? So there’s no confusion. What is it that you want me to do?”

He glanced briefly over his shoulder. “I want you to stay and make sure—” he checked over his other shoulder “—make sure nothing happens to me.”

“You want to hire bodyguards?”

“No, just you.”

“No, not just me. I can’t do this alone. I need help.”

Shepard folded his arms against his chest, broke eye contact and shook his head. “No. I don’t want anyone else.”

“Shepard. Though it pains me to admit it, especially to you, I’m only human. You want me to stay sharp, I’m going to need someone to relieve me.”

He had his lips pressed firm, but they twitched as he considered.

“One more person,” I said. “One more or I’m not doing it.”

He snorted in displeasure. I’m not sure whether the guy was being cheap or whether he really did believe I could do it all – making him either a jerk, or my biggest fan. “Okay,” he said. “One.”

“One.”

“At night. When I’m sleeping.”

“Yeah. Whatever. I’ll make that part of the deal.”

“Okay. Only at night.”

“Only at night,” I said. “I’ll take a ride back now and square it with my boss.” And score instant points for bringing in a high profile client. Go me.

“What do you mean ‘now’?” he said, waving to the crowd gathered behind the barricades. Several dozen screeching women called his name and waved back. “You’re not leaving right away, are you? Why don’t you stick around for a little while. You’ll have fun. Trust me.”

* * * * *

I hung around the set till late morning before I decided Shepard had no understanding of “fun.” The scene-shooting process amused me for the first thirty-five minutes. After that, it excited me as much as watching a cat sleep. In front of the cameras, Shepard had looked earnestly at Holly and said, “How long has it been?” sixteen times before I surrendered. If I had to watch the scene one more time, I was going to shoot myself—which would make Shepard a wide open target for the pizza killer.

I flagged down Shepard to let him know I was leaving and assure him the bright lights and rolling  cameras guaranteed his safety. Anyone who would choose poison as a means to murder wouldn’t be likely to get too close to their target, especially in a place as public as a film set.

I almost made a clean getaway, too. But smack in the middle of my ‘don’t worry, you’ll be fine’ speech, Eddie Gale ambled by on his way to try and catch a ride to the Gardner’s Basin location. Without consultation, Shepard had volunteered my services as driver. He’d also volunteered the use of his car. If I’d been in my right mind I would have declined the car, but trying to recover from the idea of driving around with Eddie Gale made it tough to argue.

Shepard dispatched his assistant, Matthew, to retrieve the car from the valet at the Sands while I dashed over to the trailer to wrap a sample of the suspect pizza. Along the way I told myself a dozen times that Eddie Gale was just a man like any other. It didn’t matter how good he smelled or how sweetly he smiled. He was just a guy. I didn’t quite believe myself, but I got close enough to be functional.

I tried not to look directly at Eddie when I met up with him and Matthew beside a glossy black SUV with hubcaps polished to a mirror finish and dark-smoked windows.

“This is Shepard’s?” I asked.

Matthew nodded and a tiny burst of dread centered itself between my shoulder blades. My personal vehicle hovered in that awkward stage between classic and heap of junk. If I drove my car into a sand bank it would be no great loss. If I drove the SUV into anything other than a mountain of cotton … different story.

Handing me the keys, Matthew solemnly wished me safe travels.

As he jogged off in the direction of the Boardwalk, I took a deep breath and turned to face Eddie.

Sunshine nestled in his hair and brightened the blue of his eyes. He looked tan and healthy and fit. And I was expected to speak?

He studied me for a long moment, as if trying to figure something out. “You want me to drive?” he asked, before I could get body and mind in sync.

“Get in the car,” I managed to say. Juggling the pizza slice, I shrugged out of the shirt I wore over a black tank top to save the silk from major wrinkling as I drove.

He smiled a lopsided smile. “Should I undress, too?”

I thought I might swoon, and completely ruin my tough girl ’tude. I looked him in the eye, hoped my body wasn’t telegraphing “take me now” messages, and said, “Get in the car, please.”

Grinning, he circled around to his side of the vehicle and I did a very slow count of three and tried to collect myself. Only months had elapsed since I split with my last boyfriend, and it wasn’t as Eddie Gale’s fame made him undeniable. Rather, I blamed the shortness of breath and tiny trembling on that unnamable something, that appeal, that chemistry sizzle. It was a basic boy-girl thing. Happened all the time. I just wished it wouldn’t happen while I was working.

With pizza slice and silk shirt stowed behind the driver’s seat, I climbed into the comfort of soft leather and the lingering fragrance of new car. Shepard had told me he kept the car at his folks’ summerhouse so he would have his own vehicle whenever he visited. From the shiny-clean look of things, he kept his visits infrequent and brief.

Pulling the seatbelt across my body so that it looked like a bandolier bisected my breasts, I blew out a breath and tried to overlook the hum in my bloodstream.

Eddie buckled into the passenger seat as I threaded the key into the ignition. “This is a great car,” he said. “Three hundred forty-five horse, V-8 engine, rear-wheel drive, and ABS with hyrdo-boost.”

“Thank you, Motor Trend,” I said, grateful for this proof of his ordinary guy status. I could handle that. As soon as my heart stopped beating so hard. Lord, did I smell his cologne or  just his natural, sexy scent?

The engine caught and a hellacious noise roared within the cab. Club music vibrated the windows, the bass beat lodging in my throat and making me doubt my ability to swallow. I reached to shut off the noise but Eddie reached the volume control first.

“Sorry,” he said, glancing in my direction. “Did you want to hear that?”

“Good grief, no. See if you can find something with a lot of metal, will you?” Maybe a little classic rock would help soothe my nerves.

Eddie smiled softly, further turned down the volume on the radio, and started searching for a station.

Focusing on the car, I eased away from the curb, anxious not to do any damage to the vehicle. I spent a couple seconds familiarizing myself with its handling. It leapt ahead at the slightest tap of the gas pedal, and each time I tested the brakes we came to an abrupt stop.

“You sure you know how to drive?” Eddie asked.

“This is my first time.” I adjusted the rearview mirror and urged the vehicle to cruising speed.

His hand stilled above the radio tuner. “You’re joking, right?”

I sighed. “Yes. Sorry.”

“Just give me a little while to get used to the humor, okay?” he asked over a chuckle. “It’s not what I’m used to.”

“How sad.”

He lowered his hand. “ZZ Top okay?”

“Turn it up loud. Which way at the light?”

With classic ZZ filling the car, we headed north on Atlantic and began to weave our way through the less-glittery portions of Atlantic City. While most of me focused on not crashing a car that cost more than I made in a year, the other part of me relaxed at the idea of having Eddie in the passenger seat. After all, it wasn’t as if I’d never had a man in my car. Then again, I wasn’t in my car.

“Tell me something,” I said over the music, “don’t you guys have car service to get you back and forth? A limo or something?”

Scowling, Eddie shook his head. “There’s a limo. I’m not into it. Any of it. Turn right.”

I bit back a complaint and made the turn. I much preferred a navigator who gave heads-up directions rather than springing turns on me like a surprise party. But this navigator I was willing to forgive.

“Now you tell me something,” Eddie said. And before I had time to panic over what he might ask, continued. “Shepard said you guys go way back. That so?”

“Yeah, forever.”

“How long?”

“Grade school. So that’s, what, almost twenty years.” Wow. I rarely thought of it in terms of actual years. Somehow ‘forever’ sounded like less time.

“And you and Shepard are just friends, or … ?”

My laughter echoed in the cavernous confines of the car. “No, there’s no ‘or’. Just friends. Seriously, do I look like Shepard’s type?”

“Well, aside from that great laugh you have, I’d say no. He’s got a thing for fragile anorexic chicks, and you … ” He trailed off and I glanced over to find his gaze slowly tracking every curve of my body, the corners of his lips rising in appreciation. “You are definitely not anorexic.”

His eyes met mine and popped in shock. He shook his head quickly and fixed his gaze out the window. “Sorry,” he said, as his neck and the back of his ear flushed red.

This line of conversation warranted pursuit. “What—?”

“Here,” Eddie said suddenly. “Left. Take this left.”

Squelching a profane outburst, I slammed on the brakes and hauled the wheel hard over left. An alarmingly loud pop sounded from the engine of the SUV. The tiny seed of fear I carried about wrecking the car began to grow. I sucked in a quick breath and held it, waiting to find out what horrors lie ahead. The vehicle shimmied into the straightaway and stayed on course.

“Did you hear that?” Eddie asked.

I shot him a glance, and met intense blue eyes gone dark with concern. “Turn the radio off.”

Silence cocooned us, a silence so complete I marveled at the car’s engineering.

As I eased off the accelerator, I tried my best to forget Eddie’s presence and tune into the vehicle. The car slowed as expected, then when I got up the nerve to resume pressure on the gas-pedal increased speed. A check of the instrument panel showed no illuminated warning lights, and the needle on the tachometer held steady. I softened my grip on the steering wheel, telling myself my nerves mad me jump to conclusions, that the noise had been nothing. A squirrel pitching acorns. A couple months early. At the undercarriage of the car.

“You want to take this left,” Eddie said softly.

I gaped at him. “Now you’re going to start giving me advance warning?”

“Seemed the best plan. How’s the car feel?”

I shook my head. No sense telling him about the squirrel.

At the corner I spied a break in traffic that would allow me to make the turn. I flicked the blinker with one hand and pulled on the steering wheel with the other. The SUV turned fifteen degrees to the left then moved straight ahead, headed directly for the corner pawn shop. Beneath my hands, the response of the wheel went from instantaneous to nonexistent. “Crap,” I spat.

I put extra muscle into turning the car, but still the vehicle altered course no more than five degrees. I slammed on the brakes. Eddie lurched forward in his seat.

“What’s wrong?” Eddie asked.

“No power steering,” I shouted, eyes on the oncoming traffic.

He shifted took hold of the wheel as I have the car a little gas. The blue sedan headed for us honked its horn as though we were unaware of our predicament. Shoulder-to-shoulder, four hands on the wheel, we cussed and muscled the SUV around the corner with less grace than a Patton tank.

In my rearview mirror, traffic streaked past my rear bumper. “Thank God,” I breathed, foot on the brake to slow the speed of our turn.

“Must have been what that noise was,” Eddie said.

I choked back a “duh”, chiefly because the brake pedal was rising against my foot. “Losing power brakes,” I said, trying to keep the panic from my voice. I didn’t know the line between not having power brakes and not having any brakes at all. I had no desire to learn the hard way.

“Maybe it’s time to pull over.”

But on one of Atlantic City’s many one-way roads, each curb was lined with parked cars.

“Where do you suggest?” My voice cut with unchecked sarcasm, while my chest constricted with anxiety.

“Maybe ….” He reached to the button for the on-board GPS and we both watched the display screen remain dark.

While I pumped the brake, I resumed looking for somewhere to pull over. “Leave it to Shepard not to keep his account current.”

“And I can’t think of anyone I know who needs vehicle navigation help more,” Eddie said, leaning forward a bit in his seat. “Let’s take this left.”

“No. Let’s please avoid any turning or stopping until we have no choice.”

“Well I don’t want to alarm you ….”

I tore my attention away from the endless string of parked cars to glance at Eddie. His gaze rested on the hood, where puffs of smoke crept out of the seams.

A renewed stream of sweat trickled between my shoulder blades.

“Got any ideas?” I asked.

“I have some ideas about what could go wrong next.”

“You’re right. We need to get off this road. Help me make this turn.”

Half off his seat, he cursed the burled wood console that divided us. Eddie once again took hold of the wheel and added muscle to get us around the corner.

We rolled into a straight line in the left lane of the one-way. Even at idle speed the speedometer crept over 20 mph. “Do we have fire or just smoke?”

Eddie leaned close against the dash and peered at the hood. “I don’t see any flames —”

“Don’t say ‘yet.’”

“All right. But I’m thinking it.”

Sweat made my hands slick on the wheel. “We need to find a way to stop this car.”

“Controlled crash.”

But we’d rolled into a residential area. The distance between the street and the front porches was mighty narrow. Should the smoke indicate fire and the fire spread, I didn’t want the fire consuming anything more than the car.

A single flame licked out from under the hood, and I clenched the steering wheel tighter.

“Ahead on the left,” he said.

At the upcoming corner orange plastic fencing blocked undeveloped property from trespassers. I figured the fencing was no match for the SUV. I also figured there was no need to make a pretty turn into the driveway.

“Give me a hand,” I said.

Eddie shifted toward me, his hands beside mine on the wheel. We forced the car left, grunted when the vehicle jumped the curb. The SUV threatened to tip. Cursing, I pressed both feet against the brake and aimed for a mini-mountain of dirt. The side of the vehicle scraped against the dirt and still we rolled. The property line lay ten feet ahead. Fifteen feet would put us into the neighbor’s yard, into the side of their above-ground pool. One more pile of dirt to our right. The SUV caught it at the headlight. Dirt and pebbles flew up over the hood of the SUV, clattered against the windshield, and the vehicle ground to a stop. Clouds of dust surrounded us, and flames crept onto the windshield.

“Out, out, out,” I said, as if there were any other option to be considered. I cut the engine, pulled the key from the ignition, and rolled out of the car.

Dirt and smoke swirled into my eyes and filled my throat. Squinting against the assault, I hustled to the sidewalk, coughing and sputtering.

Eddie met me there, breath shallow, brow coated in sweat and dirt and creased with concern. “You okay?” he asked, resting a hand on my shoulder.

I nodded and swiped at my eyes, tearing from the force of the coughing.

“You sure?”

“Fine.”

We stood for a moment side-by-side, watching smoke rise from the vehicle. Safe. We were safe. I let out a shaky breath, sent a silent thanks heavenward. Nothing like a brush with disaster to make a person grateful to be alive.

“Smokes,” Eddie said. “What do you think caused that?”

I shook my head. I wasn’t thinking about what. I was thinking about who.

* * * * *

Eddie made all the appropriate phone calls while a helpful A.C. resident rushed to our aid with a pair of kitchen fire extinguishers. The police radioed for a tow, but with no injuries and no damage to anything but the SUV and a plastic fence, they departed in short order to attend to more pressing matters—like getting Eddie Gale to Gardner’s Basin.

I sat beside Matthew in his economy rental car, heading back to the Boardwalk. I needed to get back and explain to Shepard about his car, even though I had no idea what to say and no confidence the right words would occur to me. The adrenalin rush I’d felt earlier had long since faded and the experience of wrecking the SUV had taken on the quality of a surreal memory, an event I had imagined rather than lived.

Shepard turned out to be more concerned about me and Eddie than about the car, but continued to give me a wide-eyed gaze that conveyed his conviction this adventure proved someone was trying to kill him. I hated that he might be right.

The episode gave me reservations about leaving Shepard on his own, but he planned to go straight from work to the safety of his hotel, to catch up on the sleep he missed the night before. And I had to see my boss, present the job proposal, and swing by my house to pick up my Atlantic City wardrobe. Well, okay, a few changes of clothes.

I took another sample of peanut pizza from the trailer and left with Shepard promising to get some passcards for me and my yet-to-be-assigned partner. I wondered if we’d need some kind of cover story for being on the set, and hoped if we did my boss would come up with one. After all, aren’t former spies supposed to be creative thinkers?

Okay, so maybe Dave duComte hadn’t actually been a spy. But nothing else explained his slight limp and classically nondescript appearance. In the two years I had been working for him I had only ever seen him wear brown suits, for Pete’s sake. When was the last time a guy in a brown suit drew your attention?

By the time I got back to the offices of Diamond Security to drop off the pizza sample the night shift was on dinner break. One of the on-call guards, playing solitaire on his break, informed me Dave had headed out to the local diner.

I found him sitting at the far end of a string of booths, slicing into a plate of gravy-smothered … something. A tiny jukebox hunkered in silence at the end of his table, but I could just make out Elvis singing “A Little Less Conversation” from a nearby machine.

I dropped onto the vinyl-covered bench seat opposite my boss. Brown hair, brown eyes — you wouldn’t give him a second glance. But let your gaze hold his for a moment too long and you couldn’t tear yourself away, not until the surety of someone peering into your secrets made the connection unbearable.

I set my elbows on the table and leaned in. A hole in the vinyl wheezed air as my weight shifted. “Is your name really Dave duComte? Or is it some sort of cover?”

He brushed his lips with the corner of his napkin and looked up at me. “I need you at the Guggenheim warehouse tonight.”

Few security posts were as tragically boring as the Guggenheim warehouse. I was almost grateful to Shepard for getting me out of the assignment. Not that I planned on thanking him or anything.

“Can’t,” I said, hoping to keep both the relief and pride out of my voice. “I gotta get back to Atlantic City.”

Dave didn’t speak. He simply raised his eyebrows in a way that implied ‘explain yourself.’

I ordered coffee and pie from a passing waitress and told Dave the story, from Shepard’s middle of the night phone call to his agreement to contract two bodyguards. Through it, Dave did a lot of nodding and eating. He had nothing to say until I put the first forkful of apple pie into my mouth.

“I’ll send Joe and Frank down,” he said.

My mouth went dry around my food. “No. Not Joe and Frank,” I said through a mouthful of sweet apple filling. “Me and Frank. Or me and Joe. I’m on this.”

“No you’re not.”

“Yes. I am.”

“This is an actor, right? The job goes to A-division. You go to the Guggenheim.”

A-division consisted of eight men who handled high profile clients. They got the important assignments, the international travel, and the big money. In short, they got what I wanted. But Diamond Security required each guard to complete 500 hours of bodyguard work before being eligible to apply for A-division. With all the time I spent square-badging and standing watch over inanimate objects and sign-in books, I was about 442 hours short in actual bodyguarding. Spending a week or more as Shepard Brown’s shadow would seriously whittle down that number.

I spit the gooey filling into my napkin and glared at Dave. “This is my contract. I brought the client in. I work it.”

Calm as you please, Dave laid down his knife and fork and sat back. “You’ve done what? Four, maybe five airport transfers?”

“I’ve done more than that.” To date, I’d been in on nine assignments involving safely moving a high profile client from the airport to his or her hotel. I’d done two alone for Shepard, along with a handful of black tie fundraisers. In a world where celebrities and politicians alike take desperate chances to avoid paparazzi or worse, protection is never as easy as it appears.

“Rainny, you’re not qualified.”

At the sting of his words my cheeks flushed with heat. “I’ve completed all the training, Dave. All of it. Even the stuff that’s not required.”

“Training isn’t experience.”

“I won’t get the experience if you spend another year assigning me to museums and banks and smelly labs.” I forked more apple pie chunks into my mouth, trusting the food to keep frustration at bay.

“I’ll assign you wherever I please.”

“Then assign me to my client.”

“He’s not your client. He’s the company’s client.”

“Not if I advise him to use another company.” Granted, this would have sounded more menacing if I hadn’t been talking with my mouth full, but I hoped the puffy cheeks added a certain Brando in “The Godfather” quality to my speech.

Dave picked up his knife again and dragged its tip through the gravy puddle on his plate. A hint of the dark capability of the man lurking within Mr. Nondescript flashed in his eyes. “Listen to me. You screw up in training, they lower your marks. You screw up on a security patrol, we fire you. You screw up guarding a principal and the principal can die.”

His dire observations hung in the air while I chewed. Make no mistake, I knew the consequences of failure. Were this any other assignment Dave’s words might have done more than sour my stomach. They might have made me forget how badly I wanted to be the first woman on the A-division.

The difference was, no faceless foreign dignitary needed protection. Shepard Brown needed protection. My Shepard. My childhood pal. How could I not be the one to keep him safe? How could Dave suggest sending Joe and Frank instead of me?

Forcing that last bite of pie down my throat, I looked away from Dave, unhappy with where my thoughts were straying. “Tell me something,” I said, “’cause I want to know. Is this about my experience or is this about something else?”

“I suggest you refrain from insinuating.”

I hated it when he talked like that. “I’m not insinuating. I’m asking. Is this about—”

“It’s nothing to do with your gender. This is about a man’s life. Focus on that.”

A man’s life was precisely what I focused on.

I reached for my coffee cup, white-knuckling the porcelain handle. I lifted my gaze to Dave’s and practically fell into the endless black of his eyes. He didn’t move. I didn’t move. Activity continued around us. Cutlery tapped on earthenware. Busboys chattered in Spanish. The register bell dinged with a sale.

“You and Joe,” he said at last.

Tension whooshed out of me so fast it should have been audible.

“Work it out who’s on days and who’s on nights.”

I squelched the urge to thank him effusively. Face it, I squelched the urge to thank him at all. Instead I nodded and did my best to appear professional while my toes did a happy dance inside my Keds.

“I hope you’re right and there’s nothing to this,” Dave said. “But if you’re wrong … first sign of trouble ….” He jerked his thumb like an umpire signaling a runner out. “Guggenheim warehouse.”

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