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Title: Who Glares Wins
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Only a few weeks into her new job as a private investigator, Lexi Graves thinks she may have bitten off more than she can chew with her first solo cases.
In between going undercover as a plush pony at a “Bronie” conference and following her cheating brother-in-law, she’s got a saboteur-turned-killer to catch and a missing woman to find. Two of her cases may be connected, but how?
There’s no short list of suspects to investigate, but the closer Lexi gets to the killer, the more her life is put in jeopardy. Trying to avoid being framed for a murder she didn’t commit, Lexi knows her luck is running out.
To make matters worse, her boyfriend, sexy detective, Adam Maddox, thinks she’s out of the PI game faster than she got into it. Her boss, the mysterious Solomon, meanwhile, hopes to get her between the sheets by night, as well as solving cases by day, and Lexi’s "just say no" resolve might not be as fortified as she believes.
All she wants is to be taken seriously and there’s only one way she can do that—solve the cases, no matter what.
Only two months into my new job at the Solomon Agency, and I had the awful feeling I might have bitten off more than I could chew. It wasn't the shooting practice—I was good at that—or the stakeouts, which weren’t nearly as exciting as in the movies; no, it wasn’t that at all. My problem was I was fairly sure my new colleagues—a coterie of ex-detectives, seasoned agency men, and one former criminal—didn’t take me seriously.
My boyfriend certainly didn't regard my new career seriously, that was for sure. No, Detective Adam Maddox thought it was “cute” that I was now a woman crime-fighter, and put it all down to an addiction to the adrenaline rush from my most recent brush with death. Vincent Marciano, company accountant and serial killer, was now behind bars, and everyone thought I should get over all the excitement. Everyone, that is, except my boss, John Solomon. Quite possibly the only bad guy on the good guys’ side, I liked him a whole lot.
After retiring from whatever he was doing for the government, and my decision not to return to temping hell, Solomon offered me a job at his new agency. If he thought I could become a card-carrying, licensed private investigator, I was going to damned well try my best, supportive colleagues or not.
Solomon was currently ensconced in his office, a small glass-walled corner, off the larger space I shared with four other men. We were all on the second floor of a mostly unoccupied building in downtown Montgomery. With Solomon was Steve Fletcher, and since the door hadn’t shut fully, I could just hear their conversation. Given its direction, all I could hope was that my cheeks weren’t turning pink from mortification.
My colleagues came with a shared lifetime of Army, police, national security, and, in Lucas “Don’t-call-me-by-my-surname-ever” Given's case, nefarious computer skills. I also suspected, some jail time with him, although he’d stopped twitching so frequently. I, meanwhile, brought to the table brilliant administration skills, a good eye for body language, a mind fit for crime-solving and, today, the cutest polka dot, peep-toe pumps known to woman.
Given the glances I received, first from Fletcher, then Solomon, I figured they weren't talking about my excellent taste in footwear. Every so often, I caught the phrase “not ready” and “not enough training” and “are you serious?” from Fletcher. Fletcher was a hard nut and the word “crack” wasn't in his vocabulary; unless you counted single-handedly busting a Mexican cocaine cartel, while taking two bullets in the leg. He walked with a limp and a scowl. He was a few years older than I and had seen things I hoped never to see. He seemed to like reminding me of that, too. Well, he could bite me!
Solomon turned away and picked up his cell phone, tapping a few keys before returning it to his desk. A moment later, my phone vibrated. I picked it up, wrenching my sneaky peripheral vision away from my whiny colleague and blinked at the message.
Did you just mouth “bite me”?
I looked up, gaping at Solomon, while knitting my eyebrows together just so. One corner of his mouth lifted into a knowing smile. I inhaled my gasp and dropped my gaze to the paperwork amassed on my desk, my eyes wide.
Unable to resist my curiosity at how he felt about biting me, I peeked a glance through my perfectly mascara’d lashes. I saw that Solomon hadn’t looked away, and his eyebrows were slightly raised. He commented softly on Fletcher’s reticence and shook his head, without taking his eyes off me, but his face revealed nothing. I fought the urge to send a cheeky wink in his direction, and instead, grabbed the desk phone just as it started to ring. I had to shift slightly in my seat to keep Solomon out of my line of sight.
"This is Jim on front desk,” came the cigarette-smoking voice of our receptionist slash security guard. His voice sounded like crunching gravel. “Your appointment just arrived."
"Thanks. I'll be right down."
I slipped my feet back into the peep-toes, smoothed my dress, and left the office with my head held high and my back ramrod-straight. I was determined not to give Fletcher the satisfaction of seeing how his words stung me. Taking the elevator down one floor to the small, sparsely furnished entrance lobby, I noticed the walls had recently been painted a soft gray and the wooden floor was buffed to gleaming. I looked around. There was only one person waiting and she looked up when I entered. She glanced over, taking me in from head to polka-dotted toe, then looked down at the magazine she held open in her hands. Her black hair fell around her chin to frame her sweetheart face.
"That her?” I mouthed to Jim, and he nodded. I took a moment to look her over before I approached. Elisabeth Fong was dressed for business in a neat, black suit, the skirt exactly to her knee. She had it accessorized with low-heeled, black Mary Janes, a white top, and a large black purse with a discreet logo. The suit was off the rack, but the purse was very nice, and I suspected she must have saved for it and used it every day, taking visible pride in her professional attire. Her hair was cut into a sharp bob, straight and jet-black, and her lips bore a liberal application of pink gloss, the only makeup she wore. She was neat, orderly, and guaranteed not to stand out in a crowd. Judging by the circles under her eyes, however, she looked like she hadn't been sleeping too well.
I walked over to her and inclined my head. "Elisabeth Fong?"
She looked up, blinked, eyeing me over again, and paused on my pink shift dress. I resisted the urge to smooth the imaginary creases out and waited for her to respond.
"Yes," said Elisabeth Fong; then, "is he ready for me?"
I frowned. "He?"
This was the third time since starting this job that this happened. From the periphery of my sight, I noticed Jim heard; but he just shook his head and focused on the worn paperback in his hands, saying nothing. I would have put money on it that he'd set a few people straight too, without saying a thing to me. "Lexi Graves," I corrected her.
"Oh." Elisabeth blinked back in surprise.
"Why don't you follow me?" I stepped back and waited for her to rise, then beckoned her to follow me into one of the meeting rooms off the lobby. Most private investigators saw clients in their offices, but Solomon preferred that we kept our office space separate from where we met potential clients. That was probably a good thing, given that our shared desk space didn’t offer much privacy; and the boardroom required a walk between the desks, something that made clients uncomfortable. When people hired a private investigator, they usually wanted to keep their business quiet, I soon discovered. Elisabeth would be no different. Whatever managed to bring her here was troubling her.
I swiped my keycard into a corridor that took us down to the first floor of the agency, and showed her into the main meeting room. It was an anonymous space, only a nondescript round table with four chairs, the furniture being one of the perks of the building. A phone used for conference calls sat on top, and there was a laptop connection too. The blinds were usually closed, which was fine by me because this side of the building had a lovely view of the dumpsters. But soft light filtered through the plastic slats, giving the client nothing to view, and nothing from which they could make any assumptions. They didn’t know if we were busy or quiet, neat or untidy. They couldn't make any suppositions whatsoever, personal or business-related. I suspected that was Solomon’s plan, given that the agency was as new as my tenure.
Most of all though, it meant clients couldn't poke around in places their eyes weren't meant to see. I thought the room could use a plant, at the very least, but Solomon didn't take my suggestion of a ficus very well.
"I was hoping to meet a private investigator, but I guess you'll do." Elisabeth smiled at me hopefully, but not at all apologetically. "It's hard to get anyone to take me seriously."
"I am a private investigator," I explained patiently, knowing exactly what she meant about being taken seriously, but resisting the urge to point out the irony of the moment. I knew what the problem was. Elisabeth Fong expected a grizzled, old ex-detective, probably with a paunch and nicotine-stained fingers, who talked in staccato bursts and had seen too much evil in the world. In short, not me. Even though my hair had recently returned to brunette, and I didn’t resemble the peppy blonde I’d once been anymore, I still had a serious case of the cutes. Usually that worked for me; in Elisabeth's eyes, however, I clearly read “unprofessional.”
"A chick? It happens." It was partly why Solomon hired me. I did not look like anyone's expectations of a private detective. Case in point, I was disarming. When Fletcher walked into a building, people thought “cop”. When I walked into a building… I got hit on. "Why don't you tell me why you came to see me?" I suggested, cutting to the chase.
Elisabeth paused, clearly wondering if I was worth her time; then seemed to decide, yes, I was. "It's like this… my friend is missing." The woman threw her hands in the air, clearly already exasperated, and her concern started to flow. "No one will take me seriously,” she repeated. “I went to the police as soon as I thought Marissa was missing, and they said it was too early to know. So I waited a few more days, and then they said, maybe she ran off. So, I waited another week, and they checked her place out because I was being a pest, and found nothing. But I knew someone went through her apartment, because she's neat, you know, and I could tell."
I did know. I would know if anyone had been in my apartment. Perhaps it was a woman thing. None of my three brothers could detect if a tornado had paid a visit to any of their places.
"How long has she been missing?"
"Two weeks now. It's not like her, really it isn't."
"You say the police think she..." I looked down at my one word note. "Marissa," I continued, "might have taken off?" The woman nodded. "But you don't think so? Why don’t you tell me about that?"
"Well, they think Marissa took off because she's got no one here. She was a foster kid so she doesn't have any family, and her job wasn't an exciting, high-flying one. It was kinda dull. They think maybe she got bored, and she met some guy and took off. But I know her. She's my best friend. Marissa wouldn't go anywhere without telling me first."
"Have you been close very long?"
"There's no chance she met a guy? Decided to take off and do something different with her life?" It wasn’t exactly unheard of. People changed their lives on a whim sometimes.
"No. She broke up with her last boyfriend two years ago and she wasn't into dating. Said she was fed up with losers."
I pondered that. A woman missing for two weeks and her best friend insists she wouldn’t leave without a word. Worst-case scenario? She was dead already. Clearly, that had already crossed Elisabeth’s mind because she took a deep breath and closed her eyes, biting her lip gently.
"Okay, there's a form I need you to fill out,” I told her. “I need to review the case with the agency before I can tell you if we'll take it. Agency policy,” I told her, trying to be gentle. How would I feel if my best friend, Lily, disappeared? Well, after appropriating some coveted items from her closet, I’d be very distraught.
I walked over to the cabinet, unlocked it with the small key on my key chain and extracted the missing persons form, with the Solomon Agency logo printed in the top right corner. It was four sheets long and asked for a litany of information, anything from the basics of name, date of birth, and address, to work history, friends, known disagreements, passport and bank details. I handed it to the woman and she flipped through it quickly. "I don't know the answers to some of these, but I can get them."
"Fill in what you know now," I said, "and bring in the rest whenever you can. As soon as possible. We talk over potential cases every day."
"So you'll take the case?" she asked, hopefully.
"I don't know yet. It depends on what my boss says."
It went like this. When a case came in, we got all the details from the prospective client, and, as a team, discussed its merits and what we thought we could do, as well as what resources were necessary to solve the case to the client’s satisfaction. I’d only worked on one missing person case so far, but I knew it was sometimes as simple as monitoring the missing person's financials, and just waiting for them to show up. Sometimes it took more effort, like in a custody case; and sometimes it was something we didn't want to touch, like a stalker who wanted more information about the person he was obsessing over. I sat in on a meeting like that with Solomon and it still gave me the heebie-jeebies. If we got a bad feeling, or suspected something of a serious criminal nature, we'd pass it on to the police. This was probably the only area where I trumped my colleagues; although each one of us had contacts with the local police. I had nineteen serving family members in the Montgomery Police Department. The retired ones pushed the count even higher.
"I don't have a lot of money," Elisabeth said, once she finished filling in all the details she knew and passed the form back to me. I scanned her neat writing. "But I need to know Marissa's okay."
"Understood," I said, passing her the client request sheet. "Write your details down here and someone will give you a call."
"I'll bring in everything else you need this afternoon."
"Thanks. Leave it with the guy behind the desk when you come in."
I opened the door for Elisabeth, and she paused, her eyes suddenly frightened. "Please take the case," she said, reaching for my hand. Waves of worry poured from her. "I don't have anywhere else to turn."
"I'll give it my best shot," I said, which meant nothing, unless we took the case.
"Do you have a best friend?" Elisabeth asked me, stopping in the doorway. I only had a moment to steady myself to avoid crashing into her.
I smiled. "Yes, I do."
"If she disappeared and everyone told you not to bother looking, would you? Especially if you thought something bad might have happened to her?" The pain on her face, combined with the slight pressure of her hand on my arm, implored me to say no.
I thought about Lily. "I'd never stop looking," I said, which was true.
I spent the next hour at my desk, studying the forms Elisabeth Fong filled out. She knew most of the basics. Marissa Widmore was a twenty-eight-year-old college drop out. She didn't stay at any job longer than a year, according to Elisabeth, who had filled out six years of work history. It was mostly blue collar: waitressing, shop work, some office temping. Nothing that would say, “this salary is too big to turn my back on.” Marissa didn't have any next of kin listed; instead, Elisabeth had added her own details.
Marissa lived in Frederickstown, a poor, but nice neighborhood. You could leave your car parked on the street and come back to find it still had all its wheels, although you might think twice about walking around after dark. The population was predominantly lower-income families, young couples just starting out, singles who couldn't afford anywhere better, and retirees who'd never made much progress up the salary scale.
The deal was simple. You started out in Frederickstown, but you didn't want to end up in it for life. If you aimed really high, you'd choose a house in Bedford Hills, a neighborhood of large homes on spacious lots, with their own indoor gyms, pools and often, staff; or Chilton, if you preferred the old brownstone buildings. Mostly, families and couples moved to places like West Montgomery, (where I lived), a nice area made up of small, converted apartment buildings and single-family dwellings. Singles usually moved to Montgomery Central and bought neat, boxy apartments close to the restaurants, coffee shops and buildings where they worked. Harbridge was another decent residential neighborhood, if they could afford somewhere better, wanted more space, and didn’t work downtown. Frederickstown’s main problem was that the town planners forgot about transportation when they created the area and couldn’t keep up with Montgomery’s booming population. By the time they addressed it, the area had already ghettoized and was poor. It might be hard to abandon a really nice home that you'd made your own, but most people didn't have much of a problem leaving Frederickstown behind.
No boyfriend listed, but there was a name and address for the guy Marissa had been seeing up until a couple of years ago. There was no reason given for the break-up, but Elisabeth noted that Marissa wasn’t upset. Three friends were listed and Elisabeth included their phone numbers and addresses. There was no current employment, which I found odd, because already, I got the impression that Marissa was a grafter. She might not stay in a job long, but she always had one. She couldn't afford not to. Plus, judging by her eclectic work history, she had a lot of transferable skills. She was adaptable to whatever job was available and didn’t seem stuck on any one thing. I peeled off a bright yellow, sticky note, wrote “job?” on it and stuck it to the sheet, with the colored edge sticking out.
I could see why the police hadn't looked any further. Other than Elisabeth, Marissa didn't have any strong ties to Montgomery. No important job, no nice apartment, no boyfriend. No future to look forward to. Except that last bit was only an assumption. Who knew what hopes and dreams Marissa had?
Mid-afternoon, just when I was getting bored and half of my colleagues had disappeared, I got a call from Jim, telling me Elisabeth had dropped off an envelope. I collected it, and waited until I was back in my chair before I slid my thumb under the flap and tore it open. The second form was completely filled out, including bank information, the type of car Marissa drove, and the plates.
Entering the password into my laptop, I called up a couple of programs Solomon installed. One was a credit check agency and I ran background checks on Marissa, first, then on Elisabeth. I knew Elisabeth didn't have a lot of money because she said so, but it never hurt to know what her financial patterns were, especially if we took the case. Solomon didn’t share the business’ financial information with me, but since he’d never taken a pro bono case, I had to assume he wanted to turn a profit.
The search for Marissa now moved to whether there was anything unusual to flag. Had she taken out a loan? Or gotten a new credit card? Did her spending exceed her income? Was she making payments for anything unusual? Or had she withdrawn all her money recently? Those sorts of things.
Next, I placed a call to Maddox, my number one police contact, and the man voted most likely—in my head, anyway—to turn my insides mushy. He answered after a couple of rings.
"This is a nice surprise," he said, in a warm voice. I heard a loud creak and imagined him leaning back in his chair, amidst paperwork that had already passed from one detective to another strewn across an ancient desk, its wood scored over many decades. The steady hum of background chatter filtered down the line.
"Hi, Adam,” I said, my stomach doing a little flop at the sound of his voice. “It's a work call, sorry."
"You're going to ask me to check on something or do something. I want to trade." I imagined the smile in his eyes.
"Mmm? You're a terrible snitch. What do you want?" I smiled to myself. No matter how often I bugged Maddox over the past couple of months, he always helped out. Usually with a suggestion, like how to tail someone without being seen, or easy tells for liars. However, I wasn’t going to take his advice on handcuffs again. Sometimes, however, I called him just because I liked hearing his voice. After all, there were plenty of other people I could call at MPD, and we both knew it.
"Dinner. My place. Tonight."
That was surprisingly easy. "Done."
"You can bring the food." Ahh, the catch.
"Hah. Okay, you got me and it's no problem. What do you want?"
"You pick. And now you've driven a hard bargain…" Maddox laughed. "What do you want?"
"Can you run a plate for me?"
"Any reason why?"
"A case. I'm not sure yet. I just want to know if the car's been flagged."
"Sure," he agreed, not bothering to lecture me on the legality, or lack thereof, for a PI to request confidential information from a cop.
I gave him the plate and hung up when he said he would call me back on my cell phone. I was pretty pleased about tonight’s date, not to mention the forthcoming information. Talking to Maddox was pleasurable and I suspected he knew it.
Elisabeth and Marissa's financial reports wouldn't be back for a while, so I powered down my laptop and locked it in my desk drawer.
"I'm out of here," I said, waving to Lucas, computer wonderboy, and Tony Delgado, an ex-military man built like a linebacker, before leaving. I preferred taking the back stairs to walk down to the underground parking lot we shared with the other occupants of the building.
Solomon was on his way up. I spotted his ultra-short, black hair bobbing up the stairs as he took them two at a time. He came into view only a moment before he saw me.
"I'm heading out," I told him, as I paused on the small half-landing. Solomon wore his usual thigh-hugging jeans—though I didn’t think he wore them for the effect it had on me, which was somewhere between skipping a heartbeat and drooling—and boots that looked beaten from years of wear. Today, they were paired with a dark knit, v-neck sweater, its narrow incline exposing a black t-shirt with just a hint of dark skin. Over his shoulder, he carried a backpack. I wondered where he'd been the past couple of hours, and if it had anything to do with his conversation with Fletcher. I noticed they both disappeared while I attended to Elisabeth.
Solomon raised his eyebrows, eyeing me over as he climbed the last two steps, and came to a stop next to me. He was looking down at me expectantly. I waited for him to tell me that it wasn't working out, or that Fletcher was right, and I really wasn't cut out for sleuthing, but he just nodded. The corners of his lips edged into a smile, the kind of smile to make a heart forget its job.
"I can see that. Working?" Solomon employed everyone on a flexible-hours basis. The idea was simple. Cases like the ones the agency took were not on a nine-to-five daily basis, so neither were we. However, if, for instance, surveillance was needed in the evening, we had to do it, and weekends were never off limits. On the plus side, sleeping in wasn't a problem, and I could take off for a day or two, as long as nothing was happening. Despite my years of office work and keeping regular hours, I liked this new arrangement much better, regardless of the haphazard hours.
"Checking a few things out. A missing person came in," I told him.
He grinned, his liquid-chocolate eyes amused. “Case solved.”
I gave him a little eye roll, not enough to see brain, but enough to show him he wasn’t funny. Even though he was, because I had to nip the insides of my cheeks to stop the smile that nearly appeared.
"Any red flags?" he continued.
I shook my head. "None yet. The police aren't interested apparently, but her best friend thinks there's something off. I see no reason for the woman to vanish, and no reason for her not to." I lifted one shoulder in a shrug and let it drop.
"Bring it to the meeting tomorrow." Solomon's daily office meeting was the time when we talked through various cases and their merits, before deciding on our workloads. It wasn't completely obligatory, but it also wasn't ignored. "I may have something for you as well."
"Okay. See you tomorrow."
"Lexi." Solomon nodded and turned away to continue mounting the stairs. I breathed a sigh of relief. Still had a job.
I clattered down the last flight of stairs hurriedly, before it crossed Solomon’s mind to fire me, and made my way across the lot to my VW. Solomon’s black Lexus LX was parked in the space next to it, looking like the car my car dreamt it could be. I tried not to feel guilty about stretching the truth. It was true that I was going to check on a couple of things. For one, I wanted to run by Marissa's place and see if anything stuck out. Mostly though, I intended to run home, shower, change, and get some food to take to Maddox’s place. Solomon, however, did not need to know that.
Solomon and I maintain a strictly professional relationship. Not long ago, when we worked our first case together, and before Solomon started his own company, there was some kissing involved—very, very nice kissing. The type that makes you heat up from inside out, and makes your mind turn to marshmallow fluff, rendering you unable to think of... where was I? Oh, yeah. Solomon even kissed me when he offered me the job, and I kissed him back when I took it.
Since then, nada. Nothing. Ziparoonie.
Of course, that could have a lot to do with my seeing Maddox. Maddox and Solomon were colleagues for a short while, working on a joint task force to investigate a multi-million-dollar fraud—a case I ultimately cracked—but I wouldn't call them friends. As far as I knew, they hadn't seen each other since then. Still, even though Solomon didn't press for anything more, and I didn't offer, I considered it more polite not to push my relationship with Maddox in his face. Plus, if I spent all day twirling my hair and giggling about my hot cop boyfriend, I could definitely kiss my job goodbye.
I buckled up and headed out, pointing the car towards Frederickstown, while trying not to think about Solomon's lips on mine. I took the job because I wanted it, and because Solomon promised to train me, not because he was hotter than a volcano. But every so often, I saw him looking at me in a way that wasn't strictly professional; and every so often, I caught his eye, and held it for a split second longer than I needed to, before looking away. Playing games didn't seem wise, not with my job, and certainly not with a man like Solomon. Definitely not until I found out where things were heading with Maddox. Given my colleagues’ first impressions of me, largely due to my non-PI background and for which, ironically, Solomon decided to employ me, my job felt precarious enough as it was. I did not need to add any emotional entanglements to the issue.
As I meandered through traffic, my thoughts turned to Maddox. I liked him a lot. It was too early to say whether there was, or would be, love, but I felt a lot of affection for him and received a lot back. So far, our dating life was relaxed, calling each other as and when, with normally not more than a couple of days elapsing. Our relationship had quickly progressed to the sleeping together stage, and was now in regular sleepover territory; but although he'd stayed over at my place, I had yet to stay at his.
My cheeks flushed and my heart sped up. Possibly that was the invitation for tonight.
I pulled up outside Marissa's apartment building, parking on the street, and shut off the engine. I sat there, just watching for ten minutes, until the heat completely dissipated from the car. No one came in or out, and no cars entered the small lot to the side of the building.
I checked my file for Elisabeth's description of Marissa's car, but there was no small Honda. I grabbed my purse, made sure my notepad and pen were inside, then walked over to the building. Six names were written against the buzzers on the door and I jotted them down before walking back to my car. I sat a while longer, wondering where Marissa was, then drove home. I was buzzed because tomorrow I might have a case of my own.