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The Devil and Ms. Moody
By Suzanne Forster
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1990 Suzanne Forster
All rights reserved.
"That's it, lady. Blackie's Bar. I hope you've got some brass knuckles with you."
Edwina dug through her purse for the fare and deposited the bills in the taxi driver's outstretched palm. "Wait for me, will you please?" she said. "I shouldn't be long."
Letting herself out of the cab, she shaded her eyes against the relentless late-summer sun as she faced the ramshackle bar. Except for the explosive laughter and throbbing jukebox music that blasted through the saloon doors, it might have been just another isolated tavern stuck away in southern California's San Gabriel Mountains. The old building seemed to quake with every decibel.
Blackie's. The biker bar was everything Edwina feared it would be and a few things she couldn't have even imagined. She'd done her research, but perhaps nothing could have prepared her for the ten-deep rows of gleaming choppers that jammed the gravel parking lot, most of them with more chrome than a gourmet restaurant's kitchen. Connecticut wasn't known for its motorcycle gangs.
Edwina approached the closest machine and perused the artwork on the shiny black tank. A death's-head grinned at her above the blood-red words Hell on Wheels. Wicked-looking thing, Edwina thought, shuddering.
"You sure you want to go in there, lady?"
Edwina was sure of only one thing at that moment. She wanted to be on a jet back to Norwalk. However ... She brushed wisps of damp hair from her forehead and reminded herself that confidence started with correct posture. However, her research indicated that Blackie's was a bikers' mecca, the place to be if you preferred two wheels to four. She'd been tipped that everyone showed up there eventually, and she was counting on that to be true. Especially since Holt had last been spotted riding with a San Gabriel motorcycle club called the Warlords who were known to hang out at Blackie's.
"I'm sure," she told the driver with a leveling glance at his grimace of disbelief. Like Beth, he obviously thought she was a mental case. "You will wait?" she repeated, relieved when he shrugged a yes of sorts. Wetting her dry lips, she hitched her purse strap over her shoulder and started for the swinging doors of Blackie's Bar.
If Edwina Moody was "mental," as some people obviously thought, she was also a woman of unusual fortitude. It had taken all her powers of reason and persuasion to talk her boss, Ned Dillinger, into giving her the Holt case. She'd been selected over more experienced and better qualified investigators, primarily because Ned respected the way she'd fought for the assignment. She'd come to him already having done an enormous amount of research on Holt's family background. Ned liked that kind of initiative. He also understood that it wasn't just ambition that was driving Edwina. It was also her family predicament.
What Ned didn't know about Edwina, however, was what that predicament had cost her in her own career goals. She'd set aside her graduate project, an innovative plan to combine day-care programs for preschoolers and the elderly. Her work as a nurse's aide before she'd entered college had convinced Edwina that too many senior citizens languished in convalescent-care facilities with nothing to stimulate their minds and hearts.
It was an issue that wrenched at her own heart, and leaving school had been a difficult decision. However, family came first. Of all the ties that bind, Edwina believed most strongly in responsibility to one's kin. In fact, having relinquished her dream in favor of salvaging her family, she was all the more committed to finding Christopher Holt. Even if it meant bearding the wild ones in their den.
A jeering chorus of whistles and catcalls assaulted Edwina as she pushed through the bar's entrance. Bewildered, she stopped to orient herself before she realized the uproar wasn't meant for her. As her senses adjusted to the noise and the darkness, she became aware of the musky scent of perspiration and laboring muscles. It overrode everything else, even the odor of stale beer.
"Take him out, Mad Dawg!" someone shouted. "You can do it!"
Edwina could discern customers seated at the bar and in booths, but the real action was in the room's center. A rowdy knot of bikers was gathered around an arm-wrestling match in full swing. Luckily no one seemed to have the slightest interest in Edwina Jean Moody with her dishwater-blond ponytail, patch-pocket cardigan, and sensible penny loafers. She'd intentionally preserved her "Connecticut" look on the chance that Holt might befriend or otherwise respond to someone from his former world.
Edwina approached the arm-wrestling contest quietly, drawn by the spectacle. She'd never gone in for spectator sports, and yet the display of raw physical aggression, and even rawer language, was strangely riveting.
The two wrestlers, sheened in sweat, were locked in mortal combat. They seemed to be closely matched in physical strength, and yet one of them was clearly the superior wrestler. Edwina found herself staring, both fascinated and repelled as she took in every detail.
The pro was a ruddy man with a red-tinged beard and a silver earring piercing his nose. But it was the other man, the challenger, who riveted Edwina's attention. He had a stallion's mane of long dark hair and the most unusual green eyes she'd ever seen. They looked nearly transparent but were infused with an energy bright enough to make her want to shade her own eyes, even in the murky bar.
"Ah, sí, ... el Diablo," a woman breathed near Edwina's shoulder.
Edwina glanced behind her and saw one of the barmaids, a slender Hispanic woman, coveting the green-eyed wrestler with what could only be called admiration. Naked admiration.
Edwina glanced at the man again, at his clenched jaw and the sweaty magnificence of his straining male flesh. His fight to keep his arm from being pinned was almost painful to watch. His muscles bulged with the massive effort, and his veins were ridged like cables. And yet, even in apparent defeat, he gave off more power, heat, and concentrated killer instinct than Edwina had ever witnessed in her life, firsthand or otherwise.
A buzz of surprise went up as he gave a violent cry. His face twisted with gut strength as he stopped the brutal onslaught inches from the tabletop. For several seconds he was frozen in agony, and then he began to turn the contest around. It was excruciating to watch, but Edwina couldn't turn away. The wrestler let out another savage sound and redoubled his efforts. Inch by racking inch, he forced the bearded man's arm upward until he had the crowd whistling and screaming.
Edwina's heart went crazy at that point, and she turned away from the scene with one thought on her mind. Who would ever have believed such primitive male behavior could be so ... several words came to mind, but the only one that stuck was fascinating. Fascinating?
The crowd's roar nearly took the roof off.
"Sí! Diablo! Sí!" the barmaid shouted.
Edwina realized that he must have won, but she wouldn't let herself turn around. The scene had been too raw and disturbing. Her neck muscles were taut, her temples damp just from watching. She dug into the zipper pocket of her purse and pulled out a dog-eared picture of a painfully thin, freckle-faced teenager with limbs too long for his torso and a harmonica clutched in his hand. Christopher Holt at fourteen. Enough with the arm wrestling, she told herself. Holt was the reason she was here.
Edwina frowned at the picture in her hand. It wasn't going to be easy tracking down a thirty-four-year-old man with a picture taken twenty years ago. Her only other description of Holt had come from the California DMV. They'd tightened their disclosure regulations, but she'd used her agency's law-enforcement connections to obtain his vital statistics. He'd been twenty when he applied for the license, just under six feet tall and 140 pounds, with brown hair and hazel eyes.
Holt's case was one of the strangest Edwina had ever worked on. He'd dropped out of Harvard at the age of nineteen. He'd moved out of his uncle's Connecticut estate for unknown reasons. And then he'd virtually disappeared for fifteen years.
Using the man's sporadic credit and employment history, Edwina had tracked him through a series of odd jobs in the southern California area, but she had only the picture and the DMV stats to identify him. When she complained to the estate's attorneys about the photograph's age, she learned it was the only one they'd been able to locate.
The bartender was drawing a mug of draft beer as Edwina approached. She slid onto a barstool and positioned the photograph in a stream of light from the door. "Ever seen this guy?" she asked.
The bartender squinted at it and went back to his beer. "Try the skateboard park," he said, propelling the full mug down the counter past Edwina.
"Please," she said. "It's important."
"Puleeeze?" The question, which came from behind Edwina, was followed by raucous laughter. "Now that's what I like—a woman who asks nice!"
Edwina spun around and stared dead-level into the beard of the sweaty red-headed arm wrestler.
He snatched the picture out of her hand and eye-balled it. "What do you want with boys, baby? When you could have a man."
The crowd whooped and catcalled. "A whole lot of man!" someone yelled.
Suddenly Edwina was the main attraction. Surrounded by leering bikers and feeling very much like the last fudge brownie at a bake sale, she scanned the room, searching for a way out. When she realized that she didn't have a prayer, she decided to make the best of the situation. She rescued the photo from the bearded man's hand and held it up.
"As long as we're gathered here," she said, pressing against the bar and forcing a smile, "I wonder if any of you might tell me whether you've ever seen this person before?"
"Get a load of that pencil-neck geek!" someone guffawed.
A roar went up, punctuated by howls of "Hey, baby, you can play my harmonica!" and "Wanna see my freckles?"
Edwina clearly wasn't going to get the cooperation she'd hoped for. "Well, thank you anyway," she said, sliding along the bar as she inched her way toward the door. "I'll just try the restaurant down the road."
She spotted daylight through a crack between two pairs of huge shoulders and started for it, only to find herself snagged by the wrist and jerked back.
"Aw, shucks, honey, not so fast." The bearded man dragged her into his arms like a rag doll and planted a wet, bristly kiss on her dodging features.
Edwina ducked and shoved with all her might. Thankful for her self-defense training, she landed a sharp kick to his shinbone, then twisted violently, pulling partially free. She swung back around, thinking to jam an elbow in his ribs when the man was ripped bodily from the very floor he stood on.
Rocked back on her heels, Edwina fought to catch her balance. When she looked up, her assailant was dangling in the grip of the green-eyed wrestler, who seemed about ready to plant a kiss or two of the roundhouse variety.
"Put me the hell down," the bearded man snarled.
The green-eyed man spoke softly, almost inaudibly, his voice no more than a hair-raising whisper. "I won our match, Mad Dog, and I'm claiming my prize. I want the woman."
"That ain't f-fa-fair," Mad Dog stuttered wildly as his captor shook him like a troublesome puppy. "Aw, take her then," he bellowed. "Crazy broad. I don't want her anyway."
There was a momentary scuffle as Mad Dog hit the floor. The two men went head-to-head, and then, apparently thinking the better of it, Mad Dog swore a blue streak and stomped off.
Edwina was weak with relief. "Thank y—" She lost the words as she met her rescuer's gaze. A corona of hoarfrost ringed his brilliant green irises, but beneath the glacial ice, his eyes were ablaze. It was angry fire. Consuming fire. The kind that had burned witches in Salem. For a second, Edwina wasn't sure if she'd been saved or condemned to a fate more horrible than Mad Dog.
"Let's get out of here," he said, gripping her arm and hauling her with him toward the door.
Edwina was in no position to argue. Nor did she attempt to. As she stumbled to keep up with him she realized that she would be wise to save her strength in case she had to fight him off too.
It wasn't until he had her outside and on the periphery of the parking lot that he pulled her around to face him. "What is this, Princess? A sorority dare? You lose a bet or something? You uptown babes got a weird way of getting your kicks."
He held her back and looked her over, his eyes loitering on the heaving motion of her breasts and the front zipper of her gabardine slacks. It was a long illicit look that was meant to strip her naked, in every possible sense of the word. And it did so, very effectively.
If Edwina bridled under his crude inspection, she also felt a tight, painful thrill. And hated herself for it. Babes. That word had just made her top-ten list of most-hated male epithets.
He breathed the next words, his voice never rising above the hair-raising whisper she'd heard in the bar. "Those are big bad wolves in there, Princess. They eat baby chicks like you for breakfast—every day of the week."
"Thanks for your concern," Edwina said stiffly. "Now if you'll please let me go."
Amazingly, he did. Stepping back, he left her to reorganize herself hastily, and as she did, he drew the crumpled photograph from her grip.
"What do you want with this guy?" he asked.
"Why?" She tucked her blouse into her slacks and shook her clothing into place. "Do you know him?"
"I ask the questions."
Now that she had some distance from him, Edwina allowed herself to check out the man who'd hauled her out of Blackie's. His features were hard-edged and handsome, almost too handsome for the sort of reckless life he undoubtedly lived. Harsh angles and an obviously predatory nature kept him from being pretty. Shadowed, sensual, feral. Those were the words that described his look. Not pretty. Never pretty.
He was taller than her by a half a foot at least, densely muscled, and indecently broad-shouldered. His black leather vest gleamed against suntanned skin, and the unlaced opening revealed a dark diamond of chest hair ... Her eyes flicked away as the awareness sank in that he was bare-chested under the vest.
"What's his name?" he said, as though he'd asked the question several times while she was ogling him. "And what do you want with him?"
"Holt—his name is Holt. And I'm not at liberty to tell you what I want with him. That's for his ears only, but it is urgent that I find him."
"Urgent?" He flicked the photograph with his fingers and then slid it into the breastpocket of Edwina's blouse, his fingers burning through the silky material. His eyelashes flickered, and a smoky smile emerged as he watched her cheeks go hot. "I'll tell you what's urgent, Princess—"
Edwina's heart pounded wildly under the pressure of his hand. It felt as though he were actually touching her, as though there were no fabric separating their skin. His voice was low, rusty, intimate.
"It's urgent that you hightail it out of here."
Withdrawing his fingers slowly, he gathered a handful of her blouse into his fist and drew her to him. "Before you get yourself into trouble."
Edwina nearly drowned in the saturating green of his eyes. The scent of him was hot and bewildering. It was musky body heat and the tart pungency of draft beer. It was sweat-softened leather and something else that she knew instinctively was sexual. He gave off the scent of male sexuality the way a lightning bug gave off sparks.
"Yes, maybe I should go then."
Even if Edwina had wanted to move, she couldn't have. Not right then. He was too close, too intimately paralyzing to her thought processes. She could feel his fingers curled against the flesh of her left breast and his leg pressed against an intimate part of her body. His thigh was nudging the inner curve of her hipbone in a shockingly familiar way.
But the oddest thing was that she had no desire to move. The solid heat of him felt unexpectedly riveting, and the way he was staring at her, with a kind of dawning male curiosity, as though he'd just discovered something about her he couldn't readily dismiss ... well, it made her feel alive in a way that she couldn't begin to rationalize.
"What are you staring at?" she asked.
Excerpted from The Devil and Ms. Moody by Suzanne Forster. Copyright © 1990 Suzanne Forster. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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