The Bookstore Lady
Danny Walker fought the urge to grab Paulina. Rather than get directly involved, he leaned against the back wall of Gerard Maddox’s home office while she swayed and clutched the arm of the chair next to her. Her face, perfectly made up, was as pale as her platinum hair. She stared at her champagne flute, apparently unable to swallow another mouthful. Considering the conversation that floated around her, he hardly blamed her.
“It was your job to dispose of her and get the money back.” Maddox sat back and flipped a slim silver pen over the backs of his fingers.
“I know.” Dunnsforth stood beside the oversized mahogany desk in Maddox’s office, his face ashen and anxious, despite the party going on outside the French doors to Danny’s right. His worried gaze darted toward Danny then to the window overlooking the front gardens.
Paulina’s head bowed after having drank enough champagne to incapacitate every man in the room. She shut her eyes, her cheek swollen and red from where Maddox hit her before everyone congregated in his office. She’d said Maddox looked like a stereotypical gangster. Then he hit her. In front of Danny.
“I ought to pitch you right out the window and leave you for the wolves.” Maddox chuckled and eyed Dunnsforth. “It wouldn’t surprise anyone if you committed suicide when your wife sleeps around with the most powerful men in town.” He waved a hand to Joseph Roland, the third partner in DMR Architectural. “Present company included.”
Dunnsforth’s jaw sagged. “You pig.”
Roland stood and pulled out a gun. “Leave me out of this.”
Al, one of Maddox’s men, pushed him back onto the couch. Roland lowered the gun and wiped a thin veil of white powder from his nose.
“I guess she got tired of watching you have all the fun.” Maddox brushed lint from the sleeves of his tailored Armani suit, his hair slicked back. He looked dangerous, like Andy Garcia in Ocean’s Eleven.
From the death grip on her glass, Danny, whom Maddox and the others knew as Private Detective Donovan Wild, guessed Paulina had taken enough punches for one night. Her lip was swollen and cut. What she needed was to have another drink to block out the rest of the night. Liquid Amnesia, she called it once. Drinking life away was one of her many talents, according to Maddox.
“You’re too soft, Dunnsforth. She should be dead by now.” Maddox, unofficial overlord of DMR, talked about her, not to her.
“Shut the hell up,” Paulina muttered under her breath and wrapped her arms around her stomach. She sank into a leather chair, her gaze locked on the champagne bottle.
No one else had touched their drinks. They must have known about the drugs. Paulina didn’t. She was drugged by the champagne she hoped would take the edge off. Exactly what Maddox wanted.
The room grew warm with stress and body heat. Danny longed to scratch at the fake beard glued to his chin, but with Maddox already on edge, he was afraid to make any sudden moves.
“We’ll take care of her, Boss.” Chevy Duvall looked, walked and talked like a bear on steroids. No amount of bravery—liquid or otherwise—would make Danny unafraid of him.
His cousin, Al Duvall, resembled a pointy-nosed weasel and had a voice that grated on nerves. “I know a place where no one will ever find her.”
“Well, you can take Dunnsforth there once he does the deed. He screwed up by involving his secretary. Now he needs to tie up the loose ends.”
“I’d kill her just to listen to her scream.” Al shoved his face into Paulina’s.
She gave him a half-hearted shove.
Danny yanked him away. “Leave her alone.”
Paulina’s brilliant blue eyes narrowed. She’d never made it a secret she didn’t like Donovan. Everyone else who worked for DMR wore expensive tailored suits and smelled like expensive cologne. Donovan Wild was the exception, and he’d enjoyed the notoriety while he could. Thankfully, his assignment would soon come to an end.
“Back off, Wild.” Al straightened his suit jacket.
“It’s time.” Maddox’s smile faded.
It was official. Paulina Chourney went from executive secretary to loose end in less than an hour. Her boss was supposed to kill her to appease Maddox. Her lover. She knew too much.
For the past five years, she was trusted to keep Dunnsforth’s secrets. Danny had pictures of her photocopying contracts and memos Dunnsforth hid in a safe in his house. Paulina shopped for gifts for his wife and kids and arranged dates with his string of mistresses. Dunnsforth introduced her to Maddox, who made her his mistress who lived the life.
Was any of it worth Maddox’s scorn? From the way she covered her face with her hands, he was sure even drinking herself to death sounded preferable to taking a bullet.
Danny had a gun beneath his black leather jacket, but he doubted it would do much good when everyone else had similar weapons. “What do you want me to do?”
“Nothing.” Maddox shrugged. “Enjoy the show. This is Dunnsforth’s problem to take care of. If not, we’ll have to take care of him.”
Dunnsforth sat and poured two glasses of champagne. His hands shook and he spilled on Paulina’s blue dress. The wet blotch turned purple. “Drink up.”
“Yes, dear, drink up.” Maddox interlaced his fingers. “Enjoy your last taste of champagne.”
“I don’t want it.”
Chevy forced the glass to her lips.
The white French office doors flew open and Margaret Maddox, a tall, lean woman in a slinky red gown slit to her upper thigh, scowled. “Honestly, Gerard. You invite all these people over then disappear into your office with your cronies. Give them the night off from your petty demands to celebrate. It’s not every day your company completes a hostile takeover.”
Paulina knocked the champagne glass to the floor and ducked away from Chevy. She bumped into Danny, glowering when he didn’t move. She probably wanted him thrown into Lake Erie with an anchor around his neck.
“Margaret.” Maddox frowned and fastened the buttons of his jacket to cover the butt of his gun. “Knock before you disturb my meetings.”
Margaret, another platinum blonde with long legs and a revealing skirt, waved her champagne flute. “It’s a party, darling. All bets are off. Either you and your cohorts come mingle or I’ll bring the party in here.”
Roland snorted. “I need a fresh drink anyway.”
“Don’t we all?” Dunnsforth skulked out of the room and headed for the bar.
Paulina followed so fast she stumbled into him then grabbed his arm and spun him around, her voice sharp. “What have you done? Why does he want you to kill me?”
Danny moved in closer to eavesdrop.
Dunnsforth downed a shot of scotch and grabbed her arm. His words were lost when the pianist struck several heavy chords.
Danny wavered. If he appeared drunk enough, they might not care what he overheard. He scratched at his beard, glued on since his hadn’t filled in as quickly as his commanding officers had liked.
“—get out of town,” Dunnsforth said.
Paulina pushed him away, spun on one heel and headed for the patio door. She knocked aside whoever stood in her path. No one asked about the cut on her lip.
“She’s pissed.” Dunnsforth turned to the bar. “What did she think was going to happen?”
Danny ordered a drink. “What’s she drinking? I’ll see if I can calm her down.”
“She drinks whatever the hell she can get her hands on.” He downed a second scotch then signaled for a third. “What do you want, Wild? I thought you were Maddox’s spy. I’ve got no more secrets. You’re out of luck.”
“Just concerned Paulina might cause trouble.”
Dunnsforth laughed. “Son, you’re about three years too late for that. Margaret’s known about Maddox and Paulina since the night they met. She’s one shrewd woman.”
“Boyfriends, too, from what I hear.” Danny glanced toward the patio.
Paulina stood in the moonlight. Pretty but lethal. If Maddox caught him looking at her, his body would never wash up on shore.
He meandered through the crowd and noted where the main players were. Maddox argued with his wife near the office. Roland lounged on a leather couch, one hand on a blonde, the other wrapped around a hi-ball. Al and Chevy stood guard near the buffet table. Dunnsforth, held up by the bar, was joined by his wife, a waif with glittering white-blonde hair and a large set of implants.
Paulina paced the stone terrace and tugged her wrap tighter against the April breeze. A caged animal wearing a wide blue scarf with a silver floral print. Why hadn’t she left yet? Her life was in danger. Was she waiting for one last meeting with Dunnsforth?
Danny held out a glass of wine. “Need a drink?”
“That’s not like you. Everything okay?”
She scowled. “I’m a dead woman. Everything else is great. Any other stupid questions?”
“I thought you would’ve left by now.”
“I came with Maddox.”
“He looks busy.” Danny sat the wineglass on a table near the door. “I could take you home.”
Paulina’s nostrils flared. “So I can be a notch on your belt too? At least you have nice eyes. You should shave.”
“What are you doing out here?” Maddox’s eyes were dark. Threatening.
“Keeping an eye on her,” Danny said.
“Get back inside.” Maddox stopped Danny. “Not you. Her.”
Paulina’s gaze met his. She headed for the door, stopping to pick up a glass of wine and taking a defiant gulp.
Margaret appeared. “I’m going home.”
“You’re waiting for me.” Maddox spoke over his shoulder, eyes on Danny. “As for you, Dunnsforth needs a reminder of how things work around here.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Keep his wife busy. Al and Chevy are taking him for a walk.”
Margaret cleared her throat. “I’m sending your whore home. The cab’s on its way.”
Maddox’s eyes closed. “Don’t get married, Donovan. Wives and mistresses are nothing but trouble.” He rejoined his wife and strolled into the crowd.
Danny waited until Maddox signaled Al and Chevy, who walked over to Dunnsforth at the bar.
“Heather?” Paulina beat him to his intended target. “I have something to say to you.”
Danny intercepted her. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“I don’t care what you think.”
“You will in a few minutes.”
She downed the entire glass of wine. “You want me. Let’s go to your car. Which one of us will Maddox kill first? He only lets me sleep with other men when he watches.”
Maddox walked past alone. “Plans have changed. Take her to my office. I’ll take her home after I find someone to keep Margaret busy.”
“Still want to wait for him?” Danny grasped Paulina’s elbow and led her to the office. He pressed a speed dial button.
“Bobby’s Bakery. What’s your order?” Bobby Holland was Danny’s partner on the force for the past two years.
“I am.” Paulina tried to shake off his hand.
“Where are you?” Bobby asked.
“Office.” Danny hung up when she cast a suspicious glance his way. “What?”
“You don’t have to be so rude. Move. Office. You’re a caveman.”
He yanked her, stumbling and swearing, out the patio door to his rented grey Mazda.
“I’m going to be sick.” She leaned on the hood.
“Get in. We don’t have time for that. We have to get out of here.”
“Slow down, big boy. What’s your hurry?” Paulina slurred her words and tumbled into the car. Her cheek banged against the steering wheel.
“Buckle up.” He pushed her over and glanced toward the house. No one had followed them. He hoped he’d get her to the rendezvous point before Maddox realized she was missing. By the time she sobered up, another officer would have her in protective custody.
“I don’t feel so good.” She sat up then vomited twice.
The smell made him gag as he put the car in gear. He rolled down the window. The crime lab would have to clean it up to search for evidence anyway. “You okay?”
She groaned and passed out before they reached the end of the driveway.
Danny, death grip on the steering wheel, was glad for the silence. He was antsy to take off the itchy blond beard and wig. Life was so much easier when he only had one personality, Danny Walker, police officer who didn’t have to worry about saving the lives of people he would rather put behind bars.
Maddox, Joseph and Dunnsforth had ruined more lives than a twister. He still had doubts whether Paulina was an accomplice or a victim, but she was the best witness he could have asked for. She would literally know where all the bodies were buried. All he had to do was keep her alive.
Another glance in the rear-view mirror. No vehicles. He briefly checked on the one witness who was going to bring them all down. She was out cold but still breathing.
Up ahead, an onslaught of police cars raced around the corner on their way to arrest Maddox and his entourage. Danny let his shoulders relax a quarter inch and worked his stiff jaw. If he went by the clock and didn’t run into traffic, he’d have Paulina locked up in a motel room in less than an hour.
By then, her coworkers should be in jail.
Hopefully, before anyone wound up dead.