I hope you enjoy Chapter One of Shock & Awesome (Lexi Graves Mysteries, 4). Due out July 30th!
The very last person I expected to see walking out of my boss's boardroom was my ex-boyfriend, Detective Adam Maddox. Okay, so he wasn't exactly the “last person,” but he was definitely in the top ten. After all, it wasn't like I could think of a single thing they had in common, except me, and I was fairly sure neither was too happy about that. Not that there was anything doing in “that department.” Nothing at all. Which made their handshake as they paused just outside of the doorway, as well as Maddox clapping Solomon on the shoulder, all the more strange. Now that their romances with me were over, had they moved onto -- I swallowed hard -- a bromance?
"I'll get the details to you this afternoon," Maddox said as they released hands. Solomon's right hand immediately dived into the pocket of his black chinos as he nodded in response. Okay, so maybe not a bromance. Solomon didn't seem as happy as he first appeared, not that he would ever make it obvious, of course, but after several months working with him, I got to know his most subtle moves. Solomon was up to something with my ex-boyfriend, but he wasn't altogether thrilled about it. I wondered what got to him the most: my ex or whatever they were collaborating on. Most of all, I wondered when someone was going to tell me. If there was one thing that made me more uncomfortable than having two former lovers in the same room, it was being kept in the dark on work ops. Now, with Solomon's expansion of the agency still a big secret under wraps, I was doubly eager to uncover whatever this latest thing was. I swear it had nothing to do with personal issues. With either of them. No, not I. I was a professional, and a polished professional, albeit a snoop, at that.
Turning on his heel, Maddox barely blinked at the very moment he noticed me at my desk, but our eyes met and his softened slightly before his face hardened. Okay, someone was a cross bunny. With a curt incline of his chin towards me, he marched out of the large room that served as the private investigators' shared office, towards the exit.
I didn't realize I was watching him go until the door clicked shut behind him and I turned back to my laptop, briefly glancing up to see Solomon's eyes on me, his face blank. Without saying a word, he turned away, returning to the sanctum of his office next to the boardroom.
Well, that was weird. Solomon and Maddox once worked together, and that was how I met them, after pretty much tripping over a corpse and landing in one humdinger of a financial crime. Neither were friends at the time; indeed, Maddox seemed suspicious of Solomon, given his history, which was one of shades, rather than a clear-cut resume like Maddox. His rise through the ranks of Montgomery PD was as obvious as every serving police officer in my family.
Since that first case ended, Solomon decided to retire from whatever he did in national law enforcement -- no one was ever totally sure what or who employed him -- and stick around Montgomery to start up his own detective agency. He offered me a job and Maddox presented me with the top position of girlfriend. I was still a private investigator, and though I had a lot left to learn, I was definitely off the trainee rung, but the girlfriend spot was on hiatus. Not least because I suspected Maddox of cheating with his supremely pretty undercover partner, Detective Rebecca Blake, but also because I subsequently did the horizontal horror with Solomon in several moments of unconscionable madness.
Now I was single, but gainfully employed, and my two exes were shaking hands like they were simply agreeing to man the barbecue together at Montgomery's next town fair. It was baffling. Even worse, I was desperate to know what it was all about, and so would my best friend, Lily Shuler, the moment I told her. If I didn't have the answers, I would have to listen to a whole bunch of her theories. But how was I to get the information out of a man so shrewd, he would know what I was doing as soon as I eased out of my chair?
Simple. I would wait for him to tell me. He was probably dying to, I reasoned. After all, everyone loves to share a secret.
For the next hour, as I impatiently waited in desperation for Solomon to share, while it ate me up inside, I filled the time with less paperwork and more surreptitious texting of Lily. She was as intrigued as I.
“He's dying to tell you,” she texted by return.
I looked up, narrowing my eyes at the blind-covered interior windows of Solomon's office. He gazed at his laptop screen, and only briefly did I notice his left eyebrow flicker, as if he were suddenly aware someone was watching him. I ducked my head, fully aware that he not only knew it was I, but also that he wasn't even remotely dying to tell me a thing.
“Nope,” I typed, “his mouth is tighter than a clam.”
“Bastard,” pinged the reply.
Bit harsh, perhaps, but not far off the mark in the general scheme of my thoughts.
My phone vibrated again and I peered at the screen. “Do you think they want to share you?” asked Lily.
My eyes widened and I reached for my glass of water to quench my suddenly dry mouth. I doubted it, somehow. I wasn't even sure either of them wanted me solo, given the way things abruptly ended between Maddox and me, and then Solomon and me. Just my luck, really. Wait forever for a decent guy to show up, sweating my buns off in Anton's ass-kicker of a spin class, just to keep said butt looking peachy in the interim, and just when one hot guy turns up, so does his hotter pal. As for who was hot, and who was hotter, that was hard to say. What I did know was one cheated and the other seemed to have forgotten to call. Ever.
Having said that, the thought of them going two at a time gave me a hot flush before my brain became the consistency of the innards of a Twinkie.
“I'm having a hot flush,” texted Lily.
“Get aircon,” I messaged. “How do I find out why Maddox was here?”
“Ask. Or bug S's office.”
Well, that was an idea, but somehow, I knew Solomon would find out, and when he did, I could imagine him firing my ass. What would I do then? The PI gig was my favorite job since I joined the world of the gainfully employed. Would I want to return to temping? Working the worst bits of a job to earn a measly paycheck along with the general disdain of the other employees? No. I wanted to crack cases, catch bad guys and make enough money to afford the butter yellow bungalow on Bonneville Avenue, which I had my eye on. A few months ago, it was for sale, but the sign disappeared within days. I wished it was for sale again, especially now that Lily's parents put our apartment building up for sale the moment the cast came off my arm. Having it broken while chasing the bad guys was one of the downsides of the job, but it managed to earn me several weeks of paid recuperation time.
Since getting my fill of the important goings-on in Hollywood via the E! Network, I returned to my job early and got stuck with desk duty. Now the cast was off, I was raring to go, but Solomon had yet to assign me any cases. It wasn't just that I was itching to get out there and do something productive, the bonus money was undeniably a delightful extra. My salary paid my basics, but the case completion bonus, paid by the clients, was an extra boost to my ebbing morale. I was bored. I might complain about a numb ass when I was sitting on it for hours during surveillance, in a cold car, watching an assortment of criminals, idiots, and cheats, but anything had to beat the humdrum of office work. After all, this was what I thought I escaped from when I took the job.
But aside from all that, asking was not an option. After all, I was cool and aloof! I cared not for the activities of the two men not all that in my life! If they wanted to be buddies, that was their business. Oh, whom was I kidding? I seethed with nosy desperation.
“Are you bugging S's office right now?” came Lily's next text, a few minutes later.
“No,” I tapped into my cell phone's on-screen keypad. “I'm just going to wait for him to tell me.”
“Ha-ha. Very funny. Seriously?”
I looked from the phone screen to the kit assembled on my desk. Digital camera, telescoping lens, listening bugs, miniature camera, my wire, my laptop, an array of programs and databases contained within, and I thought again. No, I decided, I had to be strong. I could not bug my boss's office. Today.
"Lexi?" I jumped at the sound of Solomon's voice and looked up guiltily, as if he could tell I was seriously considering Lily's suggestion. He couldn't see the screen from his doorway, but that didn't stop me wrapping my palm over it anyway. "My office."
"Right away." I jumped to my feet, smashing my knee on the underside of the table in my haste and limped after Solomon, tucking my phone into the back pocket of my jeans. Today I was channeling every single female on CSI Miami by wearing white jeans, a chocolate brown shirt, the sleeves neatly rolled to elbows, and the sweetest pair of brown-and-cream pumps with the cutest leather bows. Smart, feminine, ready for anything. Well, except blood, because, let's be realistic, blood and white jeans? Just not okay.
Solomon waved a hand at the chair closest to the door and perched on the edge of the desk, my side, his long legs utterly distracting to anyone but a consummate professional like me. Instead, I focused on his chocolate brown eyes framed by skin the color of a licked peanut butter cup.
"I have a case for you," he told me without preamble.
"I'll do it."
His eyebrows edged together and the corners of his lips twitched upwards. He licked his lips, and I got the impression that he wanted to smile. Or laugh. "You don't know what it is yet," he pointed out.
I blinked. "Oh! it's optional?" Yeah, there might have been a touch of sarcasm in that, but if I didn't ask, I'd never know. Much like his meeting with Maddox. Argh! I really wanted to know!
"No. You're definitely doing it."
I wasn't going to let something like a cast-iron demand dampen my enthusiasm. "Great! I'll take it!"
"There isn't much by way of a bonus," he continued.
On second thought... not much of a bonus? I would soon be homeless. I needed money for a roof, along with walls and windows; and practically speaking, I needed a new purse too. "I'm sure it'll ease me back into work," I countered, wrinkling my nose a little.
"But it won't be too taxing, especially with your arm."
"My arm feels great. Never better!" I nearly added “Tax me!” but I wasn't that stupid. If it were an easy job with a little bit of a bonus, maybe Solomon would assign me a better case next time. I just had to show him that I was still made of awesome, even though my arm did still ache a little from the break.
"Okay, then." Solomon shrugged. "The agency has been asked to consult on a case for the MPD."
"Oh?" I kept my face still, impassive. In my eagerness for something to do, I forgot to connect the dots between work and Maddox's visit. Of course. MPD knew Maddox and Solomon were acquainted. It would make sense to send him to check the lay of the land. I bet they didn't give two hoots that I worked for Solomon either, though everyone in MPD knew I did. That was mostly because my family passed the information around faster than an unlabeled gift at Christmas.
"You may have noticed Maddox here earlier."
I shrugged, hoping it came off as “Nah, maybe, whatever,” enough that Solomon didn't think it bothered me. "I saw him leave your office," I admitted, because we both knew I did. I didn't, however, know Maddox was here when I returned from my lunch break. although the partition blinds were shut, so seeing him was a surprise. That is, not exactly an "ooh, fifty percent off shoe sale!" surprise, but more the cotton-mouthed, dry palmed, heart skipping a beat surprise. Thing was, until then, I hadn't seen Maddox in a little over a month, not that my brothers -- his fellow MPD officers -- didn't keep me filled in on his movements. But it wasn’t like I exactly asked them to. They just took it upon themselves to not shut up about it, though they did stop pranking him (to my relief), but I was sure they were still giving him a hard time. A part of me wanted to ignore it, but the hurt ran deep and I was glad my brothers cared more about me.
"Maddox will be our liaison with the department," Solomon explained as he ignored my inner crisis, which I disguised by inspecting my pearl pink manicure. "Will that be a problem?" he asked abruptly.
"Uh, no. No problem," I wheezed, looking up; it was only half a lie. Truth was, I had no idea if it would be a problem until we started the case; and once started, there would be no option, but to see it through. That's what professionals did. There would be no walking off this job and asking my temp manager for a new assignment. No, if Solomon wanted it done, I'd do it. If seeing Maddox every day was painful, or happy, or anything in between, I simply wouldn't know until it happened; but, I reasoned, Solomon wouldn't have taken the case if he didn't think it would be okay. He may not have called me on a personal level since the conclusion of our case at Fort Charles, but he wasn't an unkind man. I truly believed he would never cause me pain.
"The agency needs to develop its relationship with local law enforcement," Solomon added, effectively popping my optimistic bubble that this one case would be it. "This could be a good move for us."
"Right. And Maddox just happens to be point man." I tried to say it evenly, but honestly, there was a tinge of a whine in there.
"We've worked together before. It made sense for him to read me in."
I nodded. Yeah, but... hold on! That's what I initially thought, but something clicked inside me. Wasn't I related to a chunk of MPD? Any one of them could have pointed out their connection to me and taken point. Solomon must have thought of that too. The only logical explanation left was it must have something to do with Maddox's department and Maddox came because he wanted to. He worked both homicide and financial crimes; and as far as I knew, stuck with the latter. Although a smaller department, it was one that carried less risk of smelling like corpse and dumpster, but often was just as dangerous. The last job he worked undercover was the one that split us up. Since getting over the initial hurt, I still wasn't sure how I felt about it all. "Cross" probably covered it pretty well. Also, it was smart not to send Blake, in case I accidentally shot her.
"So, what's the case?" I asked, my voice sounding like a sigh. After all, murder was on my mind and I hadn't even read the brief yet.
I frowned. "What does that have to do with the financial crimes unit?"
"Fraud squad. Anyway, the case, at its most basic description, involves stealing. The thief, however, is creative and targeting Montgomery's super wealthy. Not only does he steal cash, but art and jewels too. He's also smart enough to make off with passwords that enable him to hack the bank accounts of his victims. Over the past few months, he's apparently made a fortune across the country. That's just for the cases we think we can join together. It's likely there are more, but I don't know how far back they go. Maybe ten years. This fraudster could have made off with millions."
I frowned as I connected the dots. "So, MPD know the target victim group and I'm guessing what's already been stolen but... they can't catch this guy?"
"That sums it up, Lexi. They just can't get close. He's too good."
I ignored that. There was no one too good, except, maybe Solomon. It was a good thing he was on the good side; I couldn't imagine how successful he would be as a criminal. "And they think we can?" I finished. "How?"
"For one, we aren't as bound by the book as they are. Two, we have resources at our disposal that they don't have, and a network that we can use to our advantage who might not be so keen to work with uniforms. Three, they have jurisdictional problems, as the crimes here have been linked to those in eight other states. The cross-jurisdiction taskforce they put together is co-operating so far, but it's only a matter of time. Plus, they just don't have the resources to devote to a ghost. If he turns to murder, that's another story, but so far, no one's gotten hurt. And four..." Solomon trailed off and smiled.
Solomon's smile widened. "They don't know who the hell the guy is."
That didn't sound positive to me. That sounded like a problem. Way to go MPD dumping it on us. "Great. So we waltz in, solve it, and MPD is super happy?" I asked, sarcasm tainting my voice.
"That's the idea."
Numbers jumbled in my head beside flashing dollar signs. This sounded like a big, complicated case. "Can they afford us?"
"Not on this scale. I've agreed to a fixed fee; plus, if we do well on this case, they put out feelers to their partners, and we get more business." Solomon shrugged like it was no big deal, but it was. This wasn't the first time he hinted at expansion plans. The sudden clatter of hammering that started up directly above our heads was only another reminder that it had already begun. Solomon had big plans for his agency and I wasn't privy to them. Yet. I could still bug his office.
"I want you to co-lead on the case," Solomon continued after a minute, when the noise stopped. "I'll be working closely with you. All the guys will pull their weight on this one with surveillance. MPD will continue to work the case their end and we'll compare notes to close in."
"Okay, I get that. Hey, you keep saying this is a guy. How do they know that if they don't know who ‘he’ is?" I asked, adding bunny ears in the air with my fingers.
"The profile gives the highest probability towards the perpetrator being a white male between the ages of thirty and forty. He's smart, charming, gives the impression of being successful, and women like him. This is based on all of his reported targets being women. Aside from all of these women being rich, there's only one other common denominator, which I'll get to in a minute."
I relaxed into my chair. Okay, I knew what the case was, and it intrigued me. "Why do I think asking them for a description of the man is a stupid idea?"
"It isn't; and several states have tried. However, every case we think is linked describes a different man. All we know is, according to the victims, he's white and aged somewhere between twenty-five and fifty-five. An FBI profiler friend of mine took a look and narrowed it down to give us a better lead."
I gave him skeptically raised eyebrows. "That narrows it down to, oh, only a matter of thousands in Montgomery."
"It's not much, I agree, but it's a start. Now, while each case describes a very different person, it's the crimes that indicate it's the same man. Evidence suggests he doesn't stay in town long, targets a few women, makes his move and disappears. MPD are scared that if they don't catch him within the next couple weeks, he'll go underground, move on, and the case will go cold. Once he moves across state lines, there's little we can do, but wait for another jurisdiction to get suspicious and raise concerns. Compounding that, there are bigger gaps between each time he appears, not to mention the women are often too embarrassed to come forward. They were duped and robbed. They might not get another opportunity to catch him. MPD are desperate."
"Why does he only target women?" I wanted to know.
"We don't know for certain that he doesn't target men, too. At least, none have come forward, but they could be embarrassed. Each case interview with a victim describes the perp as charming and dashing. He knows the psychology of women, how to get under their skin, and steal what he wants: their money. He knows how to disappear, and has an exit route planned from the moment he hits town. My profiler guy has yet to work up a full profile, but he's sure he's attractive, and can pass for different ages. He's also smart, knowledgeable of both people and technology, very comfortable in his own skin, and a terrific actor. He has no problem committing crimes. He's never hurt anyone that we know of, so we don't think he's violent, but then, he's never been cornered. We need to stay on alert."
"I don't suppose anyone thought to take a photo?"
"Not a single photo has come to light that is usable. We have a couple of the back of his head, but he's been blonde, brown-haired, and gray. Eyes described as brown, blue and green. Strong chin, weak chin, slim nose, fat nose... no description is identical. Digital photos disappear. He could be anyone."
"So how are we supposed to find this chameleon?"
"You're going to date him."
"Excuse me?" I gasped. Did I hear that right? Also, what?
"Here's the other common denominator. He meets his victims through high-end establishments. Previously, he posed as a realtor for exclusive properties, a hotel magnate, a playboy, and a Hollywood producer. In this case, we think he's operating via a dating website exclusively for matching millionaires. The website is co-operating fully. Actually, it was they who brought the case to MPD after two complaints were made, and MPD made the connection. It was a lucky break; and so far, he doesn't know that we know he's in town."
"So, he doesn't know we're onto him?" I surmised.
Solomon nodded. "That's what we think. Investigations have been highly covert so far, but that's not to say he doesn't smell a rat. The moment he does, he's gone, and the case collapses. Again. The dating agency wants to keep this as quiet as possible, or risk losing their clients, so they'll co-operate any way they can."
"And you want me to be the honeytrap?" I blew out the lungful of air I was holding in. "I hate to point out the obvious, but I'm not exactly a millionaire, and even if I were, who's to say he'd go after me?" He totally would though. Both Solomon and Maddox knew that. I was way more appealing than they to the kind of guy who could extract jewels from a rich woman by sleight of hand.
Solomon smiled, and really, that should have been enough to worry me. "You're going to be Montgomery's newest, most eligible, most loaded bachelorette, looking for love. We'll write your bio based on everything the profile suggests might appeal to him and..."
"Just wait for him to contact me," I finished, sucking the air right back in and puffing out my cheeks. Realizing I probably looked like Humpty Dumpty, I blew the air out again and pursed my lips. Seriously? Me, posing as a millionairess? Dating handsome, rich, eligible men in the hopes that one of them would turn out to be a master criminal? It didn't sound arduous; it sounded kind of fun.
It certainly beat working the dating websites, looking for The One amidst a punchbowl of nuts. All I had to do was find the most rotten one and have fun doing it.