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Patty Hartman had almost everything she needed. She had a digital camera with high magnification, a spare cap to use as a disguise and a copy of today's newspaper with a hole in the middle. Through it, she was keeping an eye on forty-two-year-old former construction worker Stanley Frimley, who claimed that a severe on-the-job back injury had rendered him permanently handicapped.
A few houses down the block in this modest neighborhood of 1950s gingerbread homes, the fellow leaned heavily on his walker as he directed a gardener planting a bougainvillea. It was a lovely, peaceful scene washed by the May sunshine of the aptly named Safe Harbor, California.
Yes, she almost had it all. Sitting in her beat-up but reliable sedan with her camera at the ready, she thought about the one thing she didn't have and really, really needed.
Right now, she'd trade every man she'd ever loved and lostgrand total of onefor a portable potty. But that would have to wait because, in the yard, Stanley Frimley had started gesturing agitatedly at the gardener. She could read the guy's lips: Needs to be closer to the fence No, no, you idiot, not halfway across the yard!
Whoa! The former surfer supposedly disabled by a fall on a construction site had just moved away from his walker and taken a step forward, angrily shaking his shaggy blond hair. Before she could switch on the video, though, the lying cheat had grabbed the walker and drooped over it like a plucked flower in the hot sun.
He hadn't winced in pain or wobbled in the slightest. On top of that, the veteran surfer still looked plenty muscular considering his allegedly debilitated state. But a single step and a buff physique weren't enough evidence to prove he was defrauding the insurance company.
Irritated, Patty settled back. One good thing about the near miss: for a few minutes, she'd forgotten her bladder. Surveillance was tough on women, but she refused to use gender as an excuse for anything. Ever since Alec Denny had dumped her in high school and broken her girlish heart, she'd straightened her spine and toughened up.
Around the corner, a black-and-white turned onto the street. A glow of recognition spread through Patty. For five years, until last month, one of those cruisers had been her second home. She and her partner, Leo, had poked into every corner of town while swapping wisecracks and catching lawbreakers.
As the car rolled by, the officer in the passenger seat glanced Patty's way, no doubt wondering why some woman was sitting in a car on a residential street. Not that there was anything noteworthy about her stick-straight blond hair or what little was visible of her stocky figure.
Suddenly, Bill Sanchez's gaze widened. He started to wave, caught her glare and subsided. Yeah, that would really help her cover, having Bill greet her like a long-lost buddy.
They rolled past. For a fleeting moment, Patty wished she was with them. Not that she'd expected private detective work to be like some fast-paced TV show, but jeez. Stanley Frimley was so boring that watching a guy plant a bougainvillea was the highlight of the past week.
Well, this was the new career she'd chosen. After losing out on a promotion, she'd accepted an offer from a detective she admired, Mike Aaron, to join Fact Hunter Investigations, the company he'd recently bought. Mike had a high opinion of her abilities, and Patty was determined to live up to it.
During the past week, between conducting employee background checks for a local medical-device manufacturing company, she'd grown increasingly frustrated while observing Stanley. One morning, hoping to get closer without drawing attention to herself, she'd borrowed a friend's dog and walked it around the block so many times it had started whining about sore paws. She'd heard clanking noises in Stanley's garage that sounded suspiciously like an exercise machine, but you couldn't produce that as evidence.
Back to the bougainvillea, which the gardener had finally wedged into what Stanley deemed to be the right spot. Too close to the fence, in Patty's opinion, because as the little plant beefed up it was going to thrust its elbows in every direction. But that wasn't her problem.
As the workman packed down the soil, Stanley swung around. To Patty's dismay, his gaze fixed on her and a frown creased his brow.
She'd been spotted.
Now what? Pretend to be a Realtor examining the house for sale across the street? Nah. Time to cut her losses.
Putting the car in gear, Patty slipped on her sunglasses and pulled away. Although she avoided looking directly at the guy, she could feel him watching.
Maybe she should give up for today. What a relief to head to the nearest public restroom, at a supermarket two blocks away.
Problem was, Stanley didn't often venture into public view. If he ran true to form, he'd go back into his house and stay there until his twice-weekly foray to the store, driving an SUV with a blue handicap placard. Not only was the guy a low-down phony, but he was forcing old ladies with heart conditions to trundle down long parking lanes while he stole their reserved spaces.
She had to stop him, and this might be her best shot.
Out of sight around the corner, Patty pulled to the curb. After shedding her blue blazer to reveal a plain T-shirt, she tucked her hair into a gray baseball cap. She was already wearing running shoes, so she was covered there. Quickly, she checked her appearance in the rearview mirror. Nearly thirty, but she could pass for twenty-five and maybe younger if you didn't look too closely.
She'd never been the girlie type. Apparently that was what Alec preferred, because according to gossip, he'd married an exotic beauty who could pass for a model. That was the problem with growing up in a small town: you couldn't help hearing about your ex, even when you'd rather not. Like the news that he was back in town, setting up some kind of lab at the hospital. Well, so what?
Ignoring her body's demands, she freed her almost brand-new skateboard from the trunk and set off. Better hurry. No telling when Stanley would go scuttling back into his shell.
Must be hard on the guy, Patty mused as she zipped past a cheery bed of geraniums. According to his background report, Stanley used to enjoy sports like snowboarding, dirt biking and motocross, as well as surfing. He'd had to give all those upat least when anyone might be looking.
Had to give them all up for a lifetime of free money that he didn't deserve.
Ahead, as the gardener's truck rolled away, Stanley stood staring after it. His hands tightened on the walker and he rocked back and forth, jaw working. Longing for freedom from his self-imposed restraint?
Patty did a couple of hard pushes to work up speed. His head turnedgood, he was looking at hergo for it!
She slammed her foot on the back of the board and snapped a quick ollie jump to whet his appetite. Better not overdo it, or he might start wondering why she was so intent on performing tricks in front of him. Then she deliberately lost the board, landed smoothly and grabbed it off his lawn, where she pretended to examine it for scratches. Well, not entirely pretending.
"Kind of a fancy board for a beginner," the man sniped.
"It's my brother's." Patty hated lying. Except to scumbags. "Great graphics, huh?" She indicated the cartoon cop with flames spurting from his 9 mm.
Stanley shrugged. Weird to see him up close, after observing from a distance for the past week. "I've got two boards better than that," he boasted.
"I bet you're awesome." She wasn't sure whether that passed for flirting, which had never been Patty's strong point, but he seemed to buy it. "What happened to you, anyway?"
"Tough break." She held the board upright, so loosely it nearly slipped from her grasp.
"Watch it!" Stanley grabbed the edge. "Your brother must be nuts, letting a freaking amateur like you borrow this."
If this was the man's idea of how to talk to women, no wonder he still lived alone in his forties. Patty still lived alone, too, but that was different.
Because I choose it.
Since flirting hadn't worked, she shifted to goading. "You're too old for stuff like this, anyway," she jeered. "What're you, sixty?"
That did it. "Idiot," he muttered, and grabbed the board. "Watch how it's supposed to be done."
A thunk on the sidewalk, a rumble of wheels and he was off. Pulling her camera from her back pocket, Patty started taping. Flying in the opposite direction, throwing in a flip trick along the way, he didn't notice, so she eased back to get the abandoned walker into the frame.
Problem: his face didn't show. And he'd just whizzed out of sight around the corner.
She listened hard. Was he turning to head back or was he circling the block? She heard nothing but the murmur of a passing delivery van, the tweeting of some love-besotted bird and the angst-hyped voices from an afternoon soap opera drifting through a neighbor's window. At last she caught the clatter of wheels on concrete and then he came bombing around the opposite bend, digging in on the toe edge to make the board turn sharply, showing off his skill.
Patty caught it all. His thin face. The long, stringy hair. His plaid shirt unbuttoned over the belly to reveal a stomach-churning amount of hair.
"Hey!" He spotted the camera. "You can't video me!"
"But you're way cool! You'll be a sensation on YouTube!" She winced, registering that she'd overdone the gee-whiz act.
He halted in front of her and hopped off. "Wait a minute. You're the woman from the car."
"You're a detective, damn you!"
Patty cut off the video and backed away. "Aw, come on. I caught you fair and square." Common sense dictated she should leave now. It was foolish to risk a confrontation, and Patty hated screwing up. Wanted to be the best, damn it.
But she loved that skateboard. She'd custom-designed it herself on the internet.
The jerk stood there, gripping it and taunting, "Trade you for the camera."
"I just want to delete what you shot. Scout's honor."
"No deal. Sorry." Dangerous moment. The guy had at least fifty pounds on her and he was ticked off. Unless he pulled a weapon, though, Patty refused to give up.
"You're going to be sorry, all right." He flexed his arm muscles.
She decided to try logic. "Don't you think you have enough problems without adding an assault and robbery rap, Mr. Frimley?"
"My only problem is you."
"Getting into a fight isn't going to help your claim of being disabled."
He was thinking that over, an obviously laborious process, so she grabbed the board. "Thanks." She flung it down, jumped on it and pushed off.
For a scary second, she thought he might give chase. That she'd end up bruised and sprawled across the sidewalk, camera gone, and that she'd have let down Mike. Then, across the street, a woman stepped outside and paused, key in hand, to stare at them.
A witness. Excellent.
By the time Patty had wedged the board in the backseat, jumped into the car and started up, Stanley was retreating into his house with the aid of the walker. Trying to salvage what he could of his pathetic cover, as if there was anything left to salvage.
One more duty: Patty pulled up across the street, found the witness and made a note of her name and phone number. The woman said she'd be happy to talk later, but she was on her way out, running late to a doctor's appointment.
That was okay with Patty. She was finally free to drive to the supermarket.
Whose brilliant idea was it to locate the new embryology laboratory in the basement of Safe Harbor Medical Center?
Alec Denny wondered as he finished reviewing the contractor's latest report. It summed up the progress they'd made installing a specialized water filtration system, which would clear the water of both organic and inorganic substances before it was used in embryo development.
That lab and several others being assembled under his supervision lay an inconvenient elevator ride from his office here on the fifth floor, and a not-much-more-convenient ride from the egg-retrieval rooms on the second floor. Oh, and he'd better not forget the fertility program support services, which had been given a suite on the first floor.
It amazed him that the new program's director, world-renowned fertility specialist Dr. Owen Tartikoff, had agreed to leave his longtime base in Boston for such an awkward setup. According to reports, the hospital had originally intended to convert a nearby dental building, but the sale had fallen through. Surely it would have been better to wait until another separate structure could be acquired rather than stick the program's components into odds and ends of available space.
And yet Alec was glad to be back in Safe Harbor. The seaside town, located in Orange County about an hour's drive south of Los Angeles, had parks and a beach, as well as a harbor filled with sailboats and yachts. It was small enough to be friendly and large enough to offer excellent schools.
After the turmoil of his divorce and custody battle, Alec appreciated the chance to put distance between his four-year-old daughter and her volatile mother. Being near Grandma Darlene would provide Fiona with the stability she deserved, in the community where he'd grown up.
Frankly, he'd have moved to Antarctica if that's what it took to protect his little girl. He had let her down once. He'd never risk that again.
A tap at the door announced the presence of the hospital administrator, Dr. Mark Rayburn. Built like a football player, the guy struck Alec as a gentle giant. His even temperament provided a much-needed counterbalance to Owen's hard-driving and sometimes caustic personality. Although Alec had developed a smooth working relationship with Dr. T. over the past four years, he was glad for the chance to arrive in advance to get the lab up and running without having to explain and justify every decision.
"How's it going?" Mark asked. "On schedule, I hope."
The fertility program's opening was set for September, although they'd be seeing patients informally before then. The hospital, which had been remodeled in recent years to specialize in maternity and other women's medical issues, already had a number of obstetricians on staff.
"Things are right on track." Alec leaned back in the swivel chair and glanced out his window. In the distance, he caught a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean, a reminder of lazy childhood summers when his path through life had seemed clear-cut.
"How're you settling in? Relocating from the East Coast can't be easy on you and your daughter." Mark lingered in the doorway. Alec would have offered him a seat, but so far his office furniture didn't include a guest chair. "You must have a few old friends around here, though."