A Year Later
"I’m going in.”
Ric laughed out loud, which was probably not the best thing to do, given the circumstances. “No, you’re not.”
But Annie only narrowed her eyes at his amusement instead of delivering a smack to the side of his head.
Which, he realized, was something she hadn’t done to him since she was thirteen. Still, he could tell that she was tempted.
“Look,” he tried reason. “I said you could ride along. There’s an unspoken understanding there that you’ll stay in the car.” Of course, they were both already out of the car, standing in this suckhole of a parking lot on the crap side of Sarasota.
At least they were standing in the shade.
Annie, too, tried reason. But hers was laced with attitude. “You can’t go in. And unless Hutch is on his way over . . .”
Damn, but he hated when she called him Starsky, even by omission like that. But this time he clenched his teeth and kept his mouth shut. This was definitely not the time or place to get into The Argument, which went something like: “Oh, that’s right, Ric, you don’t have a Hutch. You don’t want one, don’t need one, even though I’m standing right here, volunteering for the job. No, you prefer to believe— despite years of police work that proved otherwise—that you don’t need any backup whatsoever. You’d prefer to end up lying in an alley again, with the shit kicked out of you. You’d prefer to pee blood. Again.”
Annie’s second day of work as his new office assistant at Alvarado Private Investigations hadn’t been a particularly good day for Ric.
Her third day, however, had included his successful apprehension and delivery to the FBI of the shitkicker’s brother, who was wanted in four states for a variety of violent crimes. Ric had received a twenty-thousand-dollar reward for his diligent, but not particularly brilliant detective work. Twenty thousand. After adding up the time he’d put in, plus expenses, it worked out to just over four hundred dollars an hour, which was sweet. Well, sweet, with the exception of those particularly nasty twenty minutes during which he’d allowed himself to get stomped in order to gain possession of the kicker’s cell phone—which subsequently revealed the location of his even nastier older brother’s girlfriend. And again, it wasn’t Ric’s skill as a detective, but rather the fact that Nasty the elder had just broken the woman’s nose, that had worked to Ric’s advantage. For a slim five percent share of the reward, plus a truckload of revenge, she’d eagerly divulged the wanted man’s whereabouts.
Still, four hundred dollars an hour, however he’d earned it, wasn’t something to sneeze at. And the fact that he’d finally worked a lucrative case that didn’t involve bored, wealthy suburbanites cheating on each other was another reason to cheer.
Yet it was the getting-beaten-up-and-peeing-blood part that Annie brought up over and over again.
Along with the fact that she had been sorely misled by her own asshole-of-a-brother-Bruce—her name for him, not his—to believe that Ric needed an assistant rather than a receptionist. Annie had taken this position, she’d told him, not merely because she needed a job where she could bring along her separation-anxiety-suffering little rat-dog, but because she didn’t want to sit behind a desk all day. Yet all Ric wanted her to do was sit in his office behind a desk, take phone calls, and create—again, her words—stupid office forms.
Of course, the most recent stupid office form Annie had created—in under ten minutes—was an exceptionally well-organized client interview sheet. It was precisely what he’d needed—possibly with the exception of those two little boxes, one that said yes, one that said no, next to the words This client wants to do me.
He’d used her interview sheet with his current client, an extremely well-put-together older woman named Lillian Lavelle, who’d come to his office just this morning.
As Ric now watched, Annie got ready to go inside of Screech’s, the so- called gentleman’s club where a young dancer named Brenda Quinn had last been employed. They had been hired—he had been hired—to find Brenda, who was Ms. Lavelle’s recently deceased daughter’s former roommate. Ms. Lavelle apparently had a photo album that she wanted to give to the young woman.
The entire case was proving to be slightly more difficult than he’d first imagined. He’d taken it just this morning, expecting to be filing it in the “case closed” drawer long before noon.
It was now sunset, pink and orange clouds streaking the western sky, as a cooling breeze blew in off the Gulf of Mexico.
As Ric watched, Annie took off her jacket, tossed it in the back of her car, and ran her fingers through her light brown curls.
“Maybe he won’t recognize me,” Ric said as she fished in her shoulder bag for something.
He deserved the look of scorn that she shot him, because it was a stupid thing to say. There was zero chance in hell that Screech’s bouncer, Tommy Fista, wouldn’t recognize him. Seven years ago, almost to this very day, Ric had jammed his knee into the middle of Tommy’s gargantuan back as he’d cuffed him and read him his Miranda rights. Fista had gone to Raiford Maximum Security for five to seven for assault and battery with a dangerous weapon.
Ric tried again. “I heard he found God in jail.”
As he watched, Annie glanced around the corner at the bouncer. Clearly Fista hadn’t found Jenny Craig in the lockup. The huge man was standing at the door to Screech’s, which was a fairly new establishment, having opened since Ric had left the police department last year.
Still, it hadn’t taken Ric much effort to learn that it was owned and operated by Vitardo Co. Strip clubs in this part of Florida were usually owned either by local scumbag Gordon Burns or his main rival, Miami-based Bernie Vitardo.
“So what’s the best-case scenario?” Annie asked as she applied lip gloss with one finger, leaning down to see herself in her little car’s side mirror. “Tony-the-bouncer takes you by the hand, leads you inside for a joyful hymn and prayer session before sharing—willingly— everything he knows about Brenda Quinn?” She straightened up, smacking her lips together as she put the container back in her bag.
“It’s Tommy the bouncer,” Ric corrected her. This was possibly the first time he’d ever seen Annie with makeup on, and he searched his memory, trying to prove himself wrong. But no. Aside from Halloween back when she was little, he couldn’t think of a single time that she’d gotten dressed up. She hadn’t gone to her school prom. And she’d worn one of Bruce’s suits and ties to her high school graduation. Although, as far as makeup went, what she had on now wasn’t much. It just made her full lips look shiny. More moist.
If that was possible.
Annie Dugan wasn’t traditionally pretty, at least not in a helpless- and-fragile delicate female sense. She did, however, have the fresh- faced, Irish American peasant-girl thing down pat, with big gray eyes and freckles, naturally curly hair, and a wide smile that could, at times, be incredibly sweet.
Her attitude, however, was pure twenty-first-century kick-ass dominatrix.
With the exception, perhaps, of her attachment to her ridiculous little dog, Pierre. Ric would’ve expected a woman like Annie to have a golden Lab. Something large and outdoorsy, capable of playing ultimate Frisbee in the park. Something that galloped. Something friendly named Pal or Lucky.
Not this glorified fuzzball of a quivering rodent named Pierre, that she now hugged and kissed and gave a doggy treat to, all while reassuring it that she’d be right back.
“So what’s the worst-case scenario here?” she asked, plopping the rat- thing back onto the front seat of her car, making sure his travel bowl of water was full before turning her attention back to Ric. “A trip to the dentist with your two front teeth on ice in a Ziploc baggie? Or maybe another few days of pink urine? Gee, that’s always so much fun. Setting my watch alarm to go off every ten minutes so I can check to make sure you haven’t gone into shock from excessive hemorrhaging . . . ?”
Yeah, telling her about the internal-injury thing had definitely been a mistake. At the time Ric had thought it would invoke a little sympathy, maybe make her extend the two-week notice that she’d given him back when she’d quit—on day one of her employment—when she found out she’d be sitting behind a desk.
Time was running out. He had only a few days left to replace her or convince her to stay.
And it was there that she had the unfair advantage.
He wanted her to stay. Rather badly.
“It wasn’t days, it was day,” he pointed out now.
“I’m going in to find Brenda Quinn’s last known address,” Annie told him with that hint of bitch-queen, do-not-cross-me, I-am-determined, you-are-toast that he’d first heard in her voice back when he’d met her, when she was eleven and he was fifteen. Almost twenty years ago. Damn, had they really been friends for nearly two decades? Although he hadn’t seen very much of her in the last ten years . . .
Still, it occurred to him that now, just as when she was little, the best way to deal with her might be simply to let her try. Just hang close to pick her up and dust her off in case she failed miserably.
It wasn’t as if there were any real danger hiding in that strip club.
It was, however, filled with relentless apathy, seedy despair, and unending depression. Spending some time in Screech’s might well make Annie decide against a career path as a private investigator.
“Okay,” Ric said.
She looked up at him with a mix of wariness and disbelief.
Ric nodded. “Go for it. Go find Brenda.”
“You don’t think I can do this,” she accused him.
“What does it matter what I think?” he countered. “It only matters what you do. Or don’t do.” Which was more likely going to be the case. But she’d find that out soon enough.
“Thank you, Yoda.” She gave a tug on the bottom of her T-shirt, as if that would somehow provide the illusion that she had real breasts.
And thank you, Mary Mother of God, for keeping him from saying that aloud, because he definitely hadn’t meant to be insulting, just realistic. Not that her breasts weren’t real. They just weren’t stripper-sized.
They were extremely nice, actually. And now that he was thinking about it, it was really her waist that wasn’t stripper size, which was good, because women who had that creepy, tiny-waisted wasp thing going on just didn’t do it for him. No, Annie was curvy and soft in a way that Ric truly appreciated. She was no skinny twig who might snap if you held her too tightly and he was so screwed because he was standing here, staring at her body, thinking about sex.
And that was a serious violation of rules one through about two thousand and twenty-seven in the male employer/female employee relationship handbook. It came right before rule number two thousand and twenty-eight: Never, never, never employ family or friends— because how the hell do you go from twenty years of friendship to employment without completely screwing things up?
Cursing Annie’s brother, Bruce, and his brilliant ideas—Bruce who was going to be mad as hell when he found out that Ric had actually let Annie go into that strip club, so he better never find out—Ric looked slightly more northward, and found himself meeting Annie’s gray gaze.
Her very cool gray gaze.
It was disconcerting as hell. If she wore heels, she’d be at least as tall as he was, and he was not a short man.
“You’re such a jerk,” she said, clearly able to read his mind all the way back to his real-breasts thought. “What, do you think I’m going to pretend I’m here to apply for a job as an exotic dancer?”
Well, yeah, that was what he’d thought. But sometimes it was best to keep one’s mouth firmly shut.
“I’m not stupid, Alvarado,” Annie continued. “Nor am I deluded. I know what I look like.” She laughed her disbelief. “Who’d pay to see me strip?”
With that, she turned and walked away, across the parking lot, around the edge of the building that kept Ric out of Tommy’s line of sight, toward Screech’s front entrance.
Pierre stood up in the front seat of Annie’s car, paws on the steering wheel so that he could watch her go.
Ric watched her, too—watched her T-shirt stretching across her back as she moved. Bruce had told him that one of her last jobs, after she quit the accounting firm, was assisting a woman who built stone walls. She was clearly strong and very . . . healthy. Very. With those long denim-clad legs leading up to a posterior that was . . . definitely healthy.
And in a flash, he could picture her, in motorcycle leather, sexy as hell, with seven-inch platform heels that would turn her into a total Amazon, strutting the stage with a whip, hooking her leg around a pole as she writhed to the pulsating music.
God save him.
She was out of sight now, and he peeked around the corner, far less patient than Pierre, who’d settled in for a nap as he waited for Annie’s promised return.
Across the parking lot, she’d stopped to speak to Tommy Fista, who not only let her pass, but actually held the door for her. When Tommy’s head was turned, she sent a quick grin and a thumbs-up in Ric’s direction, before vanishing into the club.
Max Bhagat, the head of the FBI’s most elite counterterrorist division, had a huge stain on his tie.
He was standing in the waiting area just outside of the Oval Office, and as Jules Cassidy approached this man who was both his boss and his friend, he saw that it was Emma-goo that marred the fine blue silk. It looked as if it might be oatmeal, with traces of Max’s one- year-old daughter’s favorite, mashed sweet potatoes.
“Here’s the file, sir.” Jules handed the sealed envelope over. “The news is bad.” He couldn’t say more than that out here, but he didn’t need to.
Max knew what they were dealing with. This was just confirmation. “Thanks,” he said, sticking the envelope into his briefcase.
The man had also missed a spot while shaving—a small patch near his left ear. No one else would notice it—at least those who didn’t know Max as the meticulously, obsessively well-groomed person that he was.
To Jules, who’d worked with him for years, he looked practically slovenly.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Force of Nature by Suzanne Brockmann. Copyright © 2007 by Suzanne Brockmann. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.