Story by Joe White
Illustration by L.A Spooner
Paula cracked opened the door and stuck her head in. “Someone here to see you, Old Dick.”
“Damn it, Paula, how many times…”
The door opened further. A woman dressed in a coral-colored blouse and mid-thigh black skirt pushed past Paula and walked to the front of my desk. I couldn’t see her shoes, but they sounded like castanets against the oak floor.
“Duncan Porter? The Duncan Porter that solved the Hiram brother murders?”
“Yes,” I stood and spoke slowly, looking over her shoulder at Paula. “My name is Duncan Porter.” Not Old Dick, damn it.
“This is Ms. Jeanette Thornton,” Paula said. She smirked, stepped backward while closing the door and puckered a silent kiss before shutting it completely.
Ms. Thornton looked late thirties in the best possible way, great figure, straight posture, shoulder-length black hair and eyes blue enough to detract from tiny fans of wrinkles at the corners. She wore little make-up; she had little to hide.
“Please, sit.” I pointed at the chair in front of her.
She sat with her knees slightly apart, lifted her left leg high and slowly crossed it over her right. Something winked at me. I felt my eyes widen and a jolt of heat color my cheeks. She noticed that I noticed and grinned. A cluster of jewels hung from the bottom of her platinum necklace; diamonds the size of Christmas ornaments swung from her ears.
I sat and gave her my favored client smile. “Now, how can I help you, Ms. Thornton?”
“Jeanette.” I flashed my money smile again. “How can I be of service, Jeanette?”
She opened her purse, pulled out a thick, business-sized envelope and slid it across the desk. “I would like you to sign this.”
I glanced at the envelope and back to her. She nodded at it, rocking the rocks on her ears. I picked it up, opened the flap, and slid a document half-way out. It was folded, but the title, printed in bold letters, was visible. It read ‘Prenuptial Agreement.’ I squinted at it for a moment and slid the paper back into the envelope.
“I’m afraid I don’t understand, Ms. Thornton.”
“Jeanette. Call me, Jeanette.” I think her eyes twinkled. “If we’re going to be married, Ms. Thornton simply won’t do.”
My money smile morphed into a gaping, opened mouth.
Jeanette leaned forward. “At 9 AM tomorrow, I have a simple ceremony planned at my house. The address is on the prenup. Pastor Daniels, from Sunland Methodist Church, will perform the services. Before the ceremony, we will both sign that prenup, and it will be notarized. You will also sign a confidentiality agreement my attorney is working on. Sometime later, no longer than six months, I will divorce you, but during that time you may not divorce me or have the marriage annulled.”
She held up a hand as I started to speak. “There’s something else in the envelope.”
I closed my mouth, studied her for a moment, opened the envelope, this time wider, reached behind the prenup and pulled out a check made out to Porter Detective Agency for twenty-five thousand dollars.
“You’ll receive a second check for seventy-five thousand dollars for every thirty days or portion thereof we remain married.”
Whoa. One-hundred-thousand dollars. Maybe more. With that much …. I looked up from the check. “I don’t understand. Why do you want to marry me? Why a marriage with a planned divorce? What… what would my…” I felt like a sixteen-year-old boy trying to unstrap his date’s bra… “uhh…husbandly duties be?”
Jeanette stood without the earlier familiarity. She walked to the door, turned and looked at me like a cat with both paws in a mouse hole. “We’ll have to work through that, Duncan.” This time her eye winked. “See you tomorrow.”
She left my office door opened and runway-walked through the reception area. Like I said, she wore late-thirties in the best possible way.
Paula rushed in. “Wow. Rich and gorgeous. Did you see that jewelry? Her eyes lit up. “Did you sign her?”
“I… I don’t know what just happened.”
“You don’t know?” Paula’s left eyebrow floated up. “Did you sign her or didn’t you?”
I held up the check. “Here’s a retainer. She said she would pay a minimum of one-hundred-thousand dollars… if I married her.”
Paula took the check and looked at it. Her eyes squinted. She stared at it, rolled her eyes back to me, snorted suddenly and broke out laughing. Paula’s laugh is a series of loud, high-pitched yips with occasional snorts mixed in, like a hyena and a pig sharing a karaoke mike. “Marry you … for a hundred-thousand…” Tears ran down her cheeks. She doubled over, put a hand on her stomach, the other on my desk. I thought she was finally done until she asked if Ms. Thornton had a brother and started yipping again.
After she calmed down, I suggested she start a background check on Jeanette Thornton. She said, “Sure, Old Dick. Why not?” and returned to her desk in the reception area. Paula didn’t runway-walk but watching her backside move was all the eye candy I needed.
In bed that night, she was more serious. Her research revealed that Jeanette Thornton had a net worth of three-hundred-sixty million dollars. “What’s she up to, Duncan? She’s beautiful, rich, newly divorced. Why marry a stranger? Why you?”
“What’s wrong with me?” I sat up, put a palm under her shoulder and lifted gently. She rolled to her side, facing away from me. I lay back down, slid an arm underneath her, placed the other over her and snuggled close. My fingertips stroked her belly. “You’ve been with me a lot longer than thirty days.” My hands slid up, searching for something to squeeze. “You don’t seem to mind.”
“No.” Paula did that wiggle thing I loved. “I don’t mind.”
— ♦♦♦ —
I smelled coffee. A steaming mug sat next to a blurry five-fifty-seven displayed on the alarm clock. The bed moved as Paula crawled back in. “Good morning.” It came out as a dry whisper, so I said it again, louder.
“Good morning… Old Dick.” She reached under the covers and gave me a squeeze as though validating her nickname for me. She first started calling me ‘Old Dick’ because of the film noir movies she loved; Dick being slang for Private Detective. I was three years her senior, so she added the old part. Lately, she had given it a different connotation, which aggravated the hell out of me.
“Don’t call me …” She flashed her ‘can’t be mad at me’ smile – head cocked, snowflake teeth, eyebrows arched above jade-green eyes flashing with merriment. “Ooo… Hell. Never mind.” I bunched up my pillows, sat up, grabbed the remote and turned on the TV. It was our habit to watch the six o’clock news. The coffee was hot and black; Paula’s warm leg pressed against mine. I didn’t want to get up and marry Jeanette Thornton today.
We had decided to go together and hear her out, ask the questions that needed asking and then determine if I should go through with it. If it was a marriage on paper only, and temporary, well, depending on the circumstances, that might be okay. We could do a lot with that money.
“Duncan.” Paula nudged my shoulder, turning a cautious sip into a scalding gulp.
“Ouch.” I set the mug on the side table. “What the hell?”
“The TV. Turn the volume up.”
I took my glasses from the table, put them on and looked at the TV. A picture of Jeanette Thornton filled half of the screen; a reporter’s face filled the other. I grabbed the remote from my lap and turned up the volume.
“… just last week, Richard Larson’s divorce from heiress Jeanette Thornton was finalized. Ms. Thornton was unavailable for comment. Police Chief Jamison said they are treating Larson’s death as suspicious.” The news switched to a story about a bakery infested with rats.
Paula reached for her phone, tapped at the screen, scrolled, tapped and scrolled again. “Here it is.” She gave it to me in pieces as her finger rolled up the screen. “Richard Larson… thirty-seven-years old… found dead in his condo… 11 AM yesterday… throat slashed… valuables left behind …police suspect murder.”
— ♦♦♦ —
An iron fence surrounded her house; reporters, vans and cameras crowded the front gate. Being the top P.I. in Los Angeles, I surmised they weren’t there for our wedding. I parked on the street, walked to the edge of the crowd and pushed my way through to one of the two security guards.
I held up my P.I. license. Paula claimed the picture in it made me look grumpy; she also said it was a good likeness. “Duncan Porter. Ms. Thornton is expecting me.”
The guards worked together to clear a path for my car before opening the gate and letting us pass. Even from a distance, the house at the end of the long driveway looked huge.
Paula was equally impressed. “Got enough gas to make it there? Shit.”
I parked between a new Mercedes with dealer plates and an old van proclaiming ‘Jesus Saves’ from a faded yellow bumper sticker. We sat in our car for a moment, craning our necks, trying to see where the house started and stopped. I muttered, “Married life might not be so bad.” Paula shot an elbow to my arm.
The door opened before I rang the bell and a gorgeous, smiling Jeanette Thornton stood in the doorway wearing a knee-length, all-white dress with a raised flower pattern. She looked at Paula and her smile dropped. “Come in.”
We entered a large foyer with tiled floors, marble pillars, twenty-foot ceilings and a crystal chandelier the size of a merry-go-round. Across the foyer, a long, oak-railed stairway built against a paneled wall led to an upstairs.
We followed behind Jeanette down a hallway, my attention spilt between her walk, impressionists’ paintings hanging on the walls and Paula’s sneering looks. Jeanette turned into a sitting room the size of our apartment. A well-dressed, bookish-looking man, short yet stocky, probably mid-fifties, rose from a leather chair beside an antique coffee table.
“This is Winston Lockwood, my attorney. He’ll notarize the prenup. Did you bring it?”
I pulled it from my jacket pocket and tossed it on the table. “Yes, but we need to know more before I consider signing.”
She looked at me, Paula and back to me. “I see.” She nodded at the floral-patterned couch behind the coffee table. We sat and I sank belt-deep into the cushion. Jeanette remained standing.
“Maybe this will help. Our marriage will not require you to perform any sexual acts.” She grinned and raised her eyebrows, adding to the suggestive emphasis she had placed on ‘require’.
Paula’s eyes narrowed. She put a hand on my knee and squeezed – hard.
“I have a separate room for you to sleep in and our marriage will not involve any illegal activity on your part. It will require that you spend your days and nights in this house as any husband would… until I divorce you. That’s all I can tell you for now.”
She studied us for a moment. “Winston. Come. They need to talk it over.”
Paula held her ‘harlot’ comment until Jeanette was almost out of earshot. I didn’t speak film noir, but I understood the tone she used.
“I guess we better go.” I stood and offered Paula my hand. She didn’t take it and continued to stare at the hallway.
“I don’t like that woman… don’t like her at all. But….” She looked up at me, patted the cushion next to her and I sat. “When she came in the office yesterday, she asked if you were the Duncan Porter that solved the Hiram murders. Remember?”
“Yes. I remember.”
“I think she needs a detective, not a husband. Why she needs a fake marriage to go with it…” She shook her head.
“Think it has to do with her ex-husband’s murder?” She shrugged her shoulders. I tried to read her eyes, but they were searching for answers also. “You’re not thinking I should go through with it? Actually marry her?”
Paula stared at me for several long moments. “Jeanette Thornton is a flirtatious, oversexed, manipulative bitch. She’s beautiful and rich and could have any man she wants.” She put my hand between hers. “No offense, Duncan. She could do better.”
It stung to hear Paula say it. I nodded my head. “I know.”
She flashed that damn ‘can’t be mad at me’ smile. “She thinks she could do better. She doesn’t know you like I do. You’re the best man I ever met. I love you and I trust you. Trust you completely.” She bent close and gave me a long, soft kiss. As she pulled away, her eyes were teary. She whispered, “We could use the money. Marry the bitch. Find out what the hell she’s up to.”
I signed the prenup and confidentially agreement, Winston notarized them, we walked silently to a room further down the hall where Pastor Daniels was waiting and I got married for the third time in my life, something I promised I would never do. Paula stood behind me, knowing that promise had kept us from becoming man and wife.
When the pastor said I could kiss the bride, I glanced over my shoulder. Paula’s eyes were closed. I kissed my bride quickly and with emotion, guilt, and empathy for the woman I really loved. Afterward, Jeanette led us down the hallway to the foyer and, with smiles and a cheerful voice, thanked the others for coming. As the door closed, Paula shot me an air kiss from trembling lips. I felt a lump in my throat.
Jeanette grabbed my hand. “Come with me, husband.” She led me to the foyer staircase, and we started climbing. At the top, a carpeted hallway stretched on either side of us, intersecting with adjoining hallways at both ends. We turned left. Jeannette tapped the first door we passed with a knuckle of her free hand. “This is my room.” She led me past the next room to a third. “This is yours.”
She let go of my hand, turned the door handle and pushed the door open. “I’ve instructed someone to contact Patty to pack your things and he will bring them here.”
“Paula. Her name is Paula.”
Jeanette turned her back to me. “Unzip me, husband. I need to change.”
I stood with hands at my sides. She glanced at me over a shoulder and smiled. “Surely, you don’t consider this a sexual act.”
“No.” I lowered the zipper to her waist, being as clinical as possible in the process. “Not unless you plan on reciprocating.”
She turned and the dress started sliding down her shoulders. Smiling, she caught it by pressing a hand to her breasts. “I’m going to change. Meet me in the room we just passed, the one between your room and mine. Jeanette winked, walked to her room and went in.”
I closed my eyes for a moment, blew out a slow breath and went into my room. It was rectangular-shaped with beige carpeting, crown molding, a fireplace, a desk twice the size of the one in my office and a king-sized bed that faced a wall-mounted TV. There were three doors, one to a private bath, one to the hallway and the third leading to our meeting room.
That door didn’t have a lock. Intuitively, I believed Jeanette’s only sexual interest in me was to tease and tantalize, just another man to validate her beauty and allure. But not knowing what she really wanted, not knowing why she would pay one-hundred-thousand dollars for a paper-only marriage, increased my trepidation as I opened that door.
In front of me, a bare wall surrounded the door to her room. I took a step forward, looked to my right and froze. Photos of brothers Mike and Steve Hiram covered the wall, hundreds of pictures of them at work, with their families, at sporting events and laying on a warehouse floor with their throats slit.
I gasped to jumpstart my breathing. Most of the photos I recognized from files I studied at the police station when I helped catch the Hiram killer. I looked to the left. More photos, pictures of a man I didn’t recognize, professional, personal, tooling-about-town and laying dead in a pool of blood photos. His throat was also slit and… I turned to the Hiram photos, back to the unknown man and walked closer… there were similarities. The angle of the cut, its position on the throat, the thickness of the wound, the bruises…
The sound of a door opening made me flinch. Jeanette closed her door and walked towards me. She wore black designer jeans and a tight T-shirt a sneeze away from showtime.
She waved an arm around the room. “Not what you expected?”
“Not what I expected.”
“There are similarities.” You’re not wearing a bra.
Jeanette smiled. “You are good at what you do, husband.” She stepped closer. I could smell her perfume, see flecks of white in her blue eyes. “Tell me about the murder weapon in the Hiram case.” She spoke softly, sweetly, while staring suggestively into my eyes.
I looked at the photos of the Hiram brothers behind her. “The knife went in point first, at an upward angle, just under the Adam’s apple.” I turned to the other wall and nodded.” Your ex?”
“Yes. Richard. Richard Larson.”
“His throat was cut the same way. There were small bruises above and below the points of entry, but it’s not from the blade. It’s from the hilt. The blade was shoved through to its hilt.”
Jeanette took in a deep breath and exhaled slowly. Her T-shirt didn’t explode. She walked to a file cabinet nestled next to the door of my room.
I continued explaining. “The wound was thick, jagged. Forensics found traces of white quartz in the Hiram brothers’ throats. The blade was made of stone.”
She slid opened the top drawer, reached in and pulled out a plastic bag.
“The knife was never…”
Holding the bottom of the bag with one hand, she peeled back the opening with the other.
She walked toward me, staring at the knife with a somber look, like an altar boy carrying a candle. “I went to see Richard yesterday morning. We were still intimate, even though divorced.” She stopped two feet in front of me but continued to stare at the knife. “I used my key to get in and found him dead on the kitchen floor, this knife lying next to him. I panicked. It’s my knife, a present from Father many years ago, the pride of his armaments collection. It disappeared shortly after I married Richard.”
Jeanette raised the knife and held it between us, splitting my view of her face in two. On both sides of it, a blue eye reflected the white, jagged-edged blade. “My ownership of this is well documented in antiquities magazines and amongst collectors and dealers. Richard claimed he didn’t know what happened to it, but there it was, next to his body. Sooo… I took it, afraid I might be implicated in his death…” She licked her lips. “… and possibly the murders of the Hiram brothers.”
She lowered the knife to her side and held it at a trajectory to my stomach. I took a step back. “When the Hirams were murdered, Richard got real nervous, fearful-like. He confessed to me that he was working with them, dealing in stolen art. That’s when I filed for divorce. Then the newspapers reported that the brothers were killed with a stone-bladed knife. I knew it had to be my missing knife.”
Jeanette turned to the pictures of Richard. “When you found the Hiram killer, he thought it might be over, that maybe the killings had nothing to do with stolen art. When I found him dead, I… I didn’t know what to do.”
“So, I called Winston.” She turned back. “He chastised me for taking the knife, of course, said we should call the police and tell them everything. I refused, thought of you and how you caught the Hiram killer. Sooo… I devised a plan.”
I filled in the blanks. “A marriage to a detective that could hopefully solve Richard’s murder, can’t testify against you in court because he’s your spouse and can’t share your secrets because he signed a confidentiality agreement.”
“Yes. I had Winston write the prenup and then went to your office later that day.”
Shit. Found her ex-husband murdered and flirting with me in the office that same afternoon. I took the knife from her, careful to grab it by the plastic surrounding the handle. The blade sparkled; there were no traces of blood. I looked up at her. “I smell bleach.”
She nodded. “I cleaned it.”
“Then, it could have been you that murdered him.”
“Could have.” She stepped closer. “But, I didn’t.” Her eyes dulled slightly, as though a drop of pretense had leaked out of her soul. The honey left her voice. “You have copies of all the photos I could bribe or steal. The file cabinet is full of clippings of stories on both murders. Find the person that murdered Richard. I don’t need his damn murder hanging over my head.”
She walked to the door of her bedroom, opened it and spoke over her shoulder. “Get to work, husband.”
— ♦♦♦ —
“Cold-hearted, manipulative bitch.”
Paula sometimes had trouble expressing how she felt. I sat pillow-propped on the king-sized bed, phone to my ear, watching yellow-blue flames dance between ceramic logs. To one side of me, a gold-leafed dinner plate with the crumbs-only remains of a gourmet meal sat on a silver serving tray delivered by a butler named George. Otherwise, a patchwork of photos covered the bed.
“I got my clothes. Thank you.” George had delivered those also.
“I wanted to bring them, but her man said I wouldn’t get past their gate. Did I mention that she’s a cold-hearted, manipulative bitch?” Paula paused for a moment. “Think the murders are related?”
“Yes. I now think I found a paid assassin in the Hiram killings, not the man or woman behind him.”
“Too bad you had to shoot him. He … Oh… Oh, no. Duncan… I’m sorry. Sorry.”
The memory of the only man I’d ever killed woke up to haunt me.
“I’m fine. Look, I really need your help. See if you can find out more about the relationship between the Hiram Brothers and Richard Larson. Work the stolen art angle. There must be a paper trail somewhere.”
There was an uncomfortable silence and then we spoke at that same time. “I miss you.”
After hanging up, I returned to the meeting room, taking the photos with me. I started pinning them back on the wall when I heard a door open and a man’s voice in the hallway. The door closed. I rushed to the hallway door and cracked it opened. Winston’s shoulders, then his head disappeared down the stairway.
The sound of water running came from Jeanette’s room. I returned to the photos, searching the Richard Larson wall for any sign of the Hiram Brothers. It was tedious work, mentally blocking each picture into a grid of one-inch squares and then scrutinizing every square, searching each seemingly insignificant object for significance.
Twenty minutes later, Jeanette’s door opened. She stood in the doorway wearing only a towel wrapped around her hair. “See anything of interest?”
I swallowed a gasp and looked back at a photo of Richard Larson’s slit throat. “No. Nothing of interest.” Out of the corner of my eye, I watched her turn. She stood in the doorway for a few seconds, watching me over her shoulder. Then she wiggled her hips back and forth, winked, walked into her room and closed the door. I exhaled a long, slow breath. Jeanette’s ass gave a whole new meaning to the word ‘honeymoon’.
— ♦♦♦ —
Early the next morning someone knocked on the hallway door. I poked my head out of the bathroom. “Yes?”
“Ms. Thornton would like you to join her on the patio for breakfast, sir.”
“Okay, George. I’ll be right there.”
“Very good, sir.”
I stared at a framed picture of me and Paula as I finished brushing my teeth. She had packed it in with my clothes. A waiter at Trevor’s took it, a photo of us clinking Champaign glasses, celebrating our first day of living together.
When I got to the bottom of the stairs I stopped. Where the hell was the patio?
“This way, sir.”
I jumped. Scared the hell out of me. Ninja training must have been part of George’s credentials. He led me down the hallway to the far end of the house, we turned left at an adjoining hallway and exited through a sliding door. Jeanette sat at a table set for two. Behind her, a large pool and park-sized lawn.
“Good morning, husband.” Jeanette wore a violet-colored silk robe. Her hair was brushed but not styled and she didn’t have any makeup on. She never looked lovelier.
“Morning.” I sat and flinched as Ninja George suddenly appeared at my side with a coffee pot. How does he do that?
Jeanette waited for him to leave. “Did you find anything? Any clues?”
“No. Not yet.”
I took a sip of coffee and lowered the cup. “I did notice Winston leaving your room last night.”
Jeanette didn’t miss a beat. “Yes, he visited me last night.” She wore a smile I had never seen on her before, defiant, without sexual overtones. “Jealous?”
“No… wife. Not jealous. Curious.”
She nodded. “Then I will explain… husband. As my attorney, Winston has an obligation of confidentiality that prohibits him from revealing I took my knife from Richard’s apartment. But the little man went ballistic when I told him. Got even madder when I explained I washed it with bleach. Sooo… I thought it best to give the poor dear a little extra incentive to keep it confidential.”
I stared at her, envisioning a statue of Aphrodite I once saw at the museum. A goddess made of stone. “Why did you marry Richard? Did you love him?
She chuckled. “No. Of course not. In my social circle, Richard was known as a playboy, a confirmed bachelor.” This time she flashed a proud smile, large as a quarter moon. “He was a trophy husband, nothing more.”
My favorite ring tone played. I pulled my phone from my pocket. “Good morning, Paula.”
“Good morning, Duncan. I miss you.”
“I miss you, too.”
Jeanette leaned across the table. “Hello, Peggy. Duncan and I are having breakfast now. Would you mind terribly calling back later?”
“Paula. Her name is Paula.” I stepped away from the table and spoke into the phone. “Sorry.” Paula didn’t respond. “Paula?” I looked at my screen to see if I still had a signal. “Paula?”
She finally spoke. “You still love me, Duncan?”
“Of course, I do.”
“Then punch that harlot in the nose, will ya?”
I snorted a chuckle and whispered, “I think that’s called wife-beating.”
“You’re not helping.” Paula exhaled loudly. “Wow, what a bitch. Okay. Listen up. I found out that the Hirams and Richard Larson were co-owners of Trinity Trust. That trust owns a warehouse in Chicago. Perhaps the stolen artwork is there. Also, there’s a third owner called Winwood Enterprises. It’s wrapped in several layers of shell companies I’m trying to unravel, but I’m betting that might lead us to the killer.”
“Excellent, Paula. Great work.”
“Should we go to the police with this?”
“Hold on.” I turned towards Jeanette. “Ever hear of Trinity Trust?
“No. What is that?”
“No. Tell me. What the hell’s going on?”
I held a finger up. “Paula, no problem with confidentiality. Tell Inspector Simmons about the warehouse and the Hiram Brother connection but nothing about Richard Larson’s involvement. We can’t suggest we’re working on that case at this time. Let them find the Larson connection themselves.”
“Okay.” She went silent for a moment. “You do still love me, don’t you Duncan?”
I looked back at Jeanette. “More than ever.”
I hung up, filled Jeanette in on Trinity Trust and Winwood Enterprises and headed towards the foyer. I had lost my appetite.
— ♦♦♦ —
Stupid. I was half-way up the stairs when the realization hit me. Stupid! Stupid! I rushed to the Hiram Brothers wall in the meeting room. Photo by photo I searched for images of cars, parked in their driveways, at their office, at ball games, stores, schools. There it was. Shit! Another one. And another.
I ran to the Larson wall. Four photos from the top, three from the left. Shit! One there. And there.
Paula’s ring tone. “Duncan. Winwood Enterprises is a holding company for a car dealership, three art dealers and a legal firm.”
“Owned by Win…ston Lock…wood. Winwood.”
“What? Jeanette’s attorney? How did you…”
A scream. I dropped my phone. Jeanette’s voice, from somewhere downstairs.
“Duncan?” A tinny voice by my feet.
I shouted at the floor, “Got to go,” rushed out of the room, down the hallway and started down the long stairway, stepping as quietly as possible. Unarmed, I had to count on an element of surprise.
Another scream, this one muffled.
A gunshot. Chunks of wood splintered off the oak rail three inches in front of my hand. I ducked, fell forward and started sliding. Another shot whistled over my head, exploding into the steps above me. I slid faster, my chest and knees scraping and bouncing against the edges of the steps. In front of me, Winston Lockwood stood over the dead or unconscious body of Jeanette Thornton, a raised pistol in his hand following my downward trajectory.
A blur of motion in front of me. I hit the marble floor of the foyer, somersaulted forward and landed into unconsciousness.
— ♦♦♦ —
“That’s a lot of money.” Paula stared at the check in her hand. She leaned down and kissed me. “Not bad for two days of work, Old Dick.” She straightened and put the check on my nightstand. “I’ll fetch your magazine for ya.”
We had finished watching the morning news and I was enjoying a second cup of coffee in bed, thanks to Paula. I was too sore to move much. Surfboarding down Jeanette’s stairway had left two wide, tender bands of bruises, one across the middle of my chest, the other across my knees. Paula said it looked like a purple bikini with the bottoms falling down.
Someone knocked. Paula was standing a few feet from the door, at the side table in the foyer where my mystery magazines were stacked. From the bedroom, I watched her step to the door and open it.
The time I spent with Jeanette made me realize just how much I cared for Paula and how close I came to losing her. Ninja George had saved my life, came out of nowhere and subdued Winston Lockwood who was now in custody for the murder of Richard Larson and ordering the murders of the Hiram Brothers.
Jeanette was alive. She had fainted in the arms of Winston, the little man she thought she had so easily controlled. Her asking him about Trinity Trust and Winwood Enterprises had set things in motion.
Paula bent down and picked something up. She stood, stepped into the hallway and disappeared.
I explained what I had found in the wall photos to the District Attorney. Vehicles with Winwood dealer plates were in the photographs of the homes of all three men, the parking lot of Larson’s condo and the warehouse where the Hiram Brothers were killed. They were similar plates to the one on Winston’s Mercedes parked at Jeanette’s house. While it didn’t prove he did the murders, it did connect him to the victims. His attempts to silence me and Jeannette didn’t help his case.
Paula came back into the apartment, closed the door and walked into the bedroom caring a large envelope in her hand. “Huh”, she said.” There was no one there. I answered the door right after the knocking, but no one was there.”
“An envelope. Addressed to me. It’s heavy.” She studied the envelope and looked back at me. “It’s from your harlot.”
I sat up straighter in the bed. Paula placed a finger under the envelope flap, ripped it opened and reached in. Her eyes widened.
“I think it’s…” She pulled something out. “It is. It’s her knife.” She turned it over several times as she studied it. “Why would she send it to me?”
“Is there a note?”
Paula placed the knife on the nightstand next to Jeanette’s check, reached into the envelope and pulled out a folded sheet of stationary. She unfolded it and read out loud.
“My compliments, Paula. Your Duncan is the only man I met that I wasn’t able to seduce, and I did try my dear, on several occasions.”
Paula looked up. I shrugged my shoulders. My bruises made me grimace. She shook her head, whispered, “Harlot,” and started reading again.
“You must truly be an amazing woman to command that much loyalty and affection from your man.”
Paula paused. Her brow wrinkled. She continued reading, this time slower.
“This knife is my gift to you, a trophy of sorts, for the woman who pierced the only heart I couldn’t touch. He’s a damn good man, Paula. Keep him close. Respectfully, Jeanette Thornton.”
She took a deep breath and looked at me. My ears felt tight because I was grinning ear-to-ear. Paula dropped the envelope and sat next to me. My smile dropped. She had a playful look in her eyes as she bent over to kiss me. I thought of my bruises. This was going hurt.
— ♦♦♦ —
“My wife wanted me to take pictures so I could create a world,” he says.
I nod. “A world in the eyes of the camera,” I mutter. “Yes,” he says, and his voice quivers.
He reaches around his neck and takes off the strap. Just throw it away. I don’t want to see that camera anymore.
“Try them,” he shoves the DSLR in front of me, “Try my eyes.”
“Your eyes?” I ask, looking from the DSLR to his quivering face.
“Take the camera,” he tells me.