Read an Excerpt
A Likely Story
By AJ Nuest
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 AJ Nuest
All rights reserved.
The office door flew open, and Eden froze at her desk, her gloved hand poised with the syringe in mid-air. Shifting her eyes left, she scanned the frustrated scowl creasing Tanner's pretty face. Well, shit.
"I couldn't get past his receptionist. I swear the woman's a member of the KGB." Tanner tore the straw hat off her head, scrunching the rolled brim in her fist. The door hissed closed at her back and the automatic bolt snapped in place. "The guy must've walked past me three times and it was like I didn't even exist."
Dammit. Eden refocused on the chocolate-covered cherry in her fingers and depressed the plunger, filling the candy with exactly one ounce of a powerful liquid laxative. She should've known better. Of all the dumb things Eden had ever done, scheduling herself to be out of the office at the same time Tanner was prepping for her first assignment had to top the charts.
Revenge was a tricky business. Booming, but tricky. And she should've been here to reconfirm the details with Tanner before sending their newest recruit through that door.
"It's those god-awful boots." Mocha looked up from the papers strewn across his desk, his neon orange press-on nails streaking through the fluorescent light as he waved off Tanner's failure. "I told that girl they're too manly, but she wouldn't listen."
Yep, Mocha was right. Eden arched a brow at the tan, ankle-high work boots laced up Tanner's feet. Those clodhoppers belonged in a construction zone, and threw the rest of Tanner's angelic, fresh-off-the-farm attire completely out of whack.
The brown papers rustled against Eden's rubber gloves as she returned the chocolate to the box and selected another cherry. "Did you get made?"
Not that it mattered. This early in the game, it wasn't like getting recognized was the end of the world ... even though it could be to Tanner. Balancing her elbow on her blotter, Eden shook an auburn coil out of her eyes and carefully injected the last of the laxative into the center. Those first few trips out were crucial, and Tanner's confidence would play a big part in whether or not she was successful in the future.
"No, I didn't get made." She clomped around the metal desk on Eden's left, dropping her basket of sandwiches on the floor. "Fat chance of that happening if I can't even get past the front gate."
She tossed the hat onto her desk and it skidded over the top like a downed Frisbee, the wide blue ribbon snagging on the edge. Her paisley print skirt puffed from her legs as she plopped onto her chair. Leaning forward to tug at her laces, she tossed a long blonde curl over her shoulder, toeing off her boots and kicking them aside. "I don't know how in the hell you always make this look so easy."
God, Eden remembered those days. She set the needle aside and carefully placed the chocolate in its little nest, centered the padded white sheet inside the box and lowered the lid. How irritating it could be when a scheme fell apart before she even got it up and running. "Try not to get too discouraged, sweetie. Things could be worse."
Easing the chocolates into a sleeve of shrink wrap, she spun her chair toward the machine on the back credenza. A flick of the switch and the conveyer belt hummed. She fed the box through the slot and waited for it to appear on the other side. "If he noticed you, we'd have to start from scratch. At least now we know what doesn't work."
Grant Dufferman's soon-to-be ex-wife had described him as a womanizer. A guy who got his rocks off preying on young women who were shy, naive. Innocents ripe for the picking and in need of some rescuing. Preferably by him.
Tanner's huge blue eyes and healthy Midwestern vibe should've done the trick. The creep was pretty twisted, though. Remove his Ivy League education and six-figure income, and instead of getting caught in bed with the underage daughter of his wife's best friend, Dufferman's sociopathic tendencies would've made him the perfect internet predator.
That being the case, he was also a lot smarter than she'd given him credit for. Eden pursed her lips. And he knew how to play it safe. Apparently, Grant Dufferman had gone the extra mile by surrounding himself with a dedicated staff, which meant getting the information they were after might be tougher than she'd originally anticipated.
"Did you smile? I told you not to smile." The phone rang and Mocha plucked it from the base. "Password." His high-glossed lips curled in a sneer before he dropped the receiver back into the cradle. "Wrong answer, Chuck. Can I get another contestant?"
Eden huffed a laugh, swinging the shrink-wrapped box around to her desk. She tied a wide gold bow around the center, slipped the gift card under the ribbon and snapped off her rubber gloves.
The password system was old school but effective, and ensured them a loyal, referral-based clientele. Those who preferred their dirty little secrets stayed that way. It never ceased to amaze her how much some people would pay to settle a score, and for those who couldn't afford their fee, a trade for services rendered was always negotiable. A girl could never have too many friends in her line of work.
Tugging open her side desk drawer, she pulled out Dufferman's file to take another pass over the information his wife had provided during her interview. Maybe there'd be a useful tidbit in his profile. Something Mocha had found during his research phase so they could be confident right off the top their work wasn't based on a bunch of false accusations.
The front end contained the usual — high-profile job, Mercedes-Benz, weekend squash game with the boys. Boring. Eden flipped the page and kept reading, bumping the chocolate aside with her elbow so she could spread the file open on her desk. Ah ha. She ran her finger along a line of Paris Dufferman's loopy scrawl. Right, right, here was something they might be able to exploit. Coupled with the dozen or so teenage girls he'd used up and tossed aside, seemed as if Dufferman's favorite pastime was loading up on gin and using his fists in the bedroom.
"You need to act nervous, hon. Unsure of yourself. Get his attention while acting like you don't want his attention." Standing behind his desk, Mocha shimmied his black spandex mini-skirt down his thighs, the ruffled lapels of his cropped black blazer and orange vee neckline framing his generous cleavage. "And lose the boots. No man in his right mind would go after a delivery girl wearing those steel-toed nightmares. They scream toe jam and bunions."
Eden lifted a photo of Paris from the file, the woman's left eye a hellacious black-and-blue mess, her bottom lip bloody and swollen. Yep. Disgust twisted Eden's stomach and her nostrils flared. Dufferman was one sick puppy, all right. She flipped the picture to find another showing a series of bruises running down Mrs. Dufferman's back. The woman had been right to come to them. This case deserved special attention. The kind Paris had said she hoped to avoid given her status as one of Chicago's premiere socialites. The kind Eden's team specialized in so Mrs. Dufferman would be left clear of any blame.
Mocha's size twelve, patent-leather stilettos left little depression marks in the gray carpet squares as he approached Tanner's desk and plucked the sandwiches off the floor. "Which ones are safe?"
"None of them." Tanner swept the blonde wig off her head, removed her net cap and tossed it beside the straw hat. "Unless you're itching for a bionic case of food poisoning."
He arched a finely tweezed eyebrow and batted his false eyelashes by way of a droll response. Hosiery swishing, he walked the basket past Eden's desk to the door of an adjoining office she'd had converted into a refrigerated room and industrial grade freezer. After he'd tapped the code into the keypad, the bolt slid open with a clunk, and he and the basket disappeared inside.
Eden flipped the file closed. "Did you get anything?"
"Hell, no." Tanner combed her fingers through her dark angular bob, twirled her chair around and fitted the wig on the empty mannequin head sitting on a recessed shelf built into the wall. "I stood there like an idiot until his receptionist finally gave me the stink eye."
Hmmm ... Perhaps the time had come to ramp up their efforts. It was imperative Tanner position herself as Dufferman's next, ideal candidate if they hoped to take him down.
Leaning back in her chair, Eden slid open the lower panel on the credenza and lifted out a thick, three-ring binder. "The next time you go in, I'm sending you as Cherry." She set the binder on her desk and paged to the section marked Virgins. "She's innocent, but sexy. Has a little more of a wild streak to her than Coral."
Eden tapped the Polaroid Mocha had snapped of her in a soft-pink lace dress, cap sleeves tied with silk ribbon, handkerchief hemline landing a smidge above the knee. The blonde ringlets of the wig added to the baby doll image, but the matching pink pumps made the look classy. Eye-catching, but not ostentatious. She chewed her bottom lip. With the right accessories, Cherry should work nicely. "What time's his lunch?"
Tanner tipped her head back as if Dufferman's schedule was written on the ceiling tiles. "He rides elevator eighteen up from the lower level gym and arrives at his floor anywhere between three minutes after one and one-twelve, depending on how many secretaries cross his path."
Eden smiled and stood, smoothing away the creases in her white linen dress, and curled her finger for Tanner to follow as she walked the narrow lane between the row of desks to the supply room.
While emotional attachments weren't really her thing, Eden had to admit Tanner had found a way into her heart. She reminded Eden of a younger version of herself. A blank slate — no close friends, family scattered across the globe, and too sharp to get stuck inside a cubicle only to dream of a better life.
Tanner was a lost soul who'd fallen through the cracks in the system, just like Mocha and exactly the same as Eden had been before Malcolm had found her and offered her a way out by grooming her to take over the business.
She punched the code into the keypad and led Tanner into the large walk-in closet. Training another to follow in her footsteps was only the first phase in Eden's long-term goals. Goals she'd put on hold far too long, waiting for the day her financial status made them viable.
Another year, maybe two, and she'd finally be able to see them through.
"Here." She lifted the lace dress from Cherry's section on the hanger bar and dropped it on the hook near the three-way mirror, brought over the shoes and set them on the floor. "The next time you go in, I want you to arrive so you and Dufferman end up on the same elevator." Eden pointed for Tanner to stand in the middle of the mirrors, unhooked the dress and held it in front of Tanner's shoulders. "As you're getting off on his floor, trip and drop the basket."
Eden shook the hanger and Tanner squinted, grabbing the dress from Eden's hand. "What if he doesn't stop to help me pick up the mess?"
Plucking Cherry's wig from the mannequin head, Eden brought it over and tugged it down Tanner's dark hair. "Please. The man has a reputation to uphold and you'll be a damsel in distress. He'll not only help you, he'll get you past his receptionist by inviting you into his office. You know. Just to make sure you're okay."
Grasping Tanner's upper arms, Eden leaned close. As much as Tanner had proven she could handle the job, the last thing Eden wanted was Tanner getting hurt. They needed to be careful. Play it every bit as safe. "No matter how much he insists you stay, you get in, sell him the sandwich and get out. The man is dangerous, Tanner. Underestimating him would be a bad mistake. Your only goal at this point is to leave a lasting impression." She tipped her head. "For next time."
Tanner frowned. "And the food poisoning?"
An evil smile curled Eden's lips in the mirror. "Oh, that's just a bonus. By the time we're done with him, a few days in the bathroom will be the least of Grant Dufferman's problems."
* * *
Flipping up the collar on his leather jacket, Detective Kelly Riordan shot a glance at the icy rain spitting against the windshield of his Dodge Charger before shoving open the door. A freezing blast of wind careened in off the lake, and he winced as a sheet of hard drizzle doused his face.
Mother Nature during October in Chicago could be one mean bitch. He slammed the door and assessed the small group of onlookers standing a few feet down the beach. The flashing lights of the parked squads bounced off their umbrellas, tinting the rainy sheen blue then red.
Well, at least he could count himself lucky the shitty weather had cut down on the rubberneckers. Whatever evidence the rain hadn't washed away, the rest of the scene should be fairly clean.
He swiveled his shoulders to scan the row of stately manors facing the lake. Too bad he hadn't caught the same break with location. A dead body washed up on the shores of this gated Gold Coast community was gonna cause him hell. The DA would be on his ass like white on rice until he'd closed the case.
He swung back toward the beach and jerked his chin at Néna Ramirez as the officer trudged up from the cordoned off area near the water, tossing her long, dark braid over her shoulder. "Whadda we got?"
"Caucasian female, mid-to-late twenties." She stepped onto the black top and stomped her feet, knocking clods of wet sand off her boots. "Working girl, from the looks of her."
Christ, a prostitute. In this area. A headache bloomed behind Kelly's eyes. Fucking great.
"It gets better." Lifting the back of her hand, Ramirez swept a raindrop off the end of her nose, and then nodded toward a middle-aged couple huddled together under a blue umbrella a foot or so from the crowd. "Mr. and Mrs. Weaver. They found the body about an hour ago and called it in. DeFranco's ruled it homicide. Victim took multiple stab wounds to the chest and torso before getting tossed in the lake."
Jesus. Kelly shifted his attention to the medical examiner, squatting over the body, and raked a dripping piece of hair off his brow. "Any ID?"
"No personal effects." Ramirez turned to follow Kelly's stare down toward the scene. "Time of death is still up for grabs, but DeFranco's estimating three days based on water temp and rate of decomp." Pivoting back toward Kelly, she lifted a brow. "He wants her back at the lab before confirming anything."
Yep, that matched square with DeFranco's MO. His Type A personality brought obsessive-compulsive disorder to a whole new level. Hell, if not for his coke-bottle glasses and missing pointy ears, the guy would make the perfect stand-in for Mr. Spock.
Good news was, DeFranco's practice of trusting science over supposition made him the best damn medical examiner in the city, and Kelly trusted his guesstimate over scientific fact any day. He'd been lucky to pull DeFranco on the case.
He nodded and jerked his thumb at the unlucky folks who'd found the victim. "Put 'em in a squad and get 'em some coffee." Doing so wouldn't help. No amount of time or money could scrub the image of a violent murder from a person's brain, especially when it came to the bloated remains of a floater. But at least they'd be warm, tucked out sight for when the local television jackals arrived. "Keep the press clear. I won't be long."
She dipped her chin and walked off as he started down the beach.
Thunder rumbled in the distance. Another wall of icy water hit his face, and Kelly yanked his jacket zipper higher as he ducked under the yellow police tape stationed around the scene. A black plastic tarp covered most of the body — no doubt DeFranco's attempt to keep any more evidence from disappearing — and Kelly couldn't help but razz the guy. Just to make him a little crazier than he already was. "Beautiful weather we're having."
The medical examiner glanced up from where he was bagging the victim's hands and used the edge of his shoulder to shove his glasses back up his nose. "Damn rain makes everything harder."
Tugging a rubber glove from his pocket, Kelly dropped to his haunches and flipped the tarp away from the victim's face.
Shit. He lowered his chin to his chest, one hand hanging limp between his knees. The bright-red dye job, those huge brown eyes staring off into space ...
Someone up there really hated his guts. This case just kept getting better and better.
"You know her?"
Excerpted from Dirty Deeds by AJ Nuest. Copyright © 2016 AJ Nuest. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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