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Somewhere in New Jersey
"What part of 'The mob's got a contract on you' do you not understand?"
Dan's whispered question didn't faze the stunning blonde at his side. She shrugged. "I understand you're trying to do your job, Mr. FBI Special Agent Maddox, but you should remember I've lived with these people all my life."
He went to press his point, but she cut him off. "Do you really think they don't know where to find me?" She tossed her tawny mane. "They have more arms into more places, people and things than a family of octopuses...octopi?"
Dan looked around at the innocent bystanders, busy pretending not to listen. Why did he always get the nutcases? "How about this, Carlotta--"
"Hold it right there! Your memory's not so hot, is it? I've asked you and asked you not to call me that.
Carlie--that's what you want to call me. It's not so hard, is it? Try it, you might like it."
Her wink nearly sent his patience over the edge. "Do you ever take anything seriously?"
"Yes," she said, her eyes intent, her voice warm and vibrant. "I take God seriously. And then I leave the rest to Him."
Dan had heard this kind of crazy illogic before. David Latham, one of his closest friends and a fellow agent in the Philadelphia Organized Crime Unit, was a gung ho religion sellout. Then, after a recent case, his partner, J. Z. Prophet, went and married another one. To really throw him for a loop, J.Z. succumbed to the lure of false confidence in the same philosophical game of mirrors, and was now one of them.
"You go ahead and do that," Dan said, in a low voice.
"But while you're in the Witness Protection Program, you better leave thedriving to me--so to speak."
She rolled her large brown eyes. "Speaking of driving--"
"Would you please lower your voice? People are staring, and we don't want to draw attention to you."
Carlotta--Carlie--laughed. Here he was, trying to keep the crazy woman alive, and she laughed.
He tried again. "Don't laugh like that. Keep it quiet. I just told you we don't want to draw attention--"
"Just look--at where," she gasped between laughs,
"we are. Then you tell me who's causing the commotion."
Dan pressed his forehead against the aggressively pink door frame. "I know, I know, I know. But that's the whole point. Why did you feel the need to come--"
"Simple," she said. "I love nice nails, and mine looked like fence posts after a dust storm. So where did you want me to go? A drive-in lube shop?"
From the corner of his eye, Dan caught the fascinated stares of the nail techs, noses and mouths covered with baby-blue dust masks, and the dozen or so women in various stages of acquiring lethal prongs on the tips of their killer claws.
He took a deep breath. "Okay. Let's go. We've over-stayed our questionable welcome."
"But I'm not done yet."
"Oh, yes you are." Dan grasped her upper arm and urged her toward the--what else?--pink door. "And I don't mean the paint on the nails either."
"But I have no color--"
"Believe me, you don't lack in that department." He glanced at the talons on her hands. "Even when your nails look like the glow-in-the-dark fake ones kids wear."
"How dare you? These are the finest acrylic--"
"You want to die for plastic nails?" That finally made her pause. "Well, no. Of course I don't." She took a step toward the bubble-gum-colored front door. "But I'm not willing to live a shadow life either."
Dan took advantage of her forward motion and took hold of her hand. Carlie confounded him when she called out over her shoulder, "Bye, Dianna. Take care of little Davey, Sarah. Shonna, remember to tell your mom to try the echinacea for that cold. And Trish? Dump the jerk. He's not worth it--"
"What are you doing?" He turned to stare at her. "Who are all those women? How do you know them all?"
"I'm saying goodbye. Don't you do that when you leave?"
"Why did you come to a place where you've been before? Don't you realize that's the quickest way for your brother's pals to get you?"
"I didn't come back to where anyone knew me. This is the first time I've been here."
Why me? "So how do you know about the mother's cold or the other one's jerk?"
"I don't know. I said hi, and we got to talking. It's not just about the nails, you know."
"But you still risked your life for them."
"I told you I don't want to die for my nails." He led them out of the shop and to his Bureau-issue car. "I'm glad you're not ready to die for plastic. And that shadow life you mentioned isn't a forever thing. All we need is a conviction on your husband's killers."
Carlie yanked her hand from his and stuck her fists on her slender hips. "And you really think that after my brother Tony, Joey-O, Larry Gemmelli and my dad are behind bars I'll be free to roam wherever I want?"
"Pretty much. At least, that's when my job ends, as far as you're concerned."
"Think again, Cop Boy. Larry's got more 'family' than Giant Stadium has seats. And they won't be too happy with me--they aren't already. Then there are all of good old Dad's zillion 'business associates." Think they'll like visiting Dad at the pokey? Not hardly."
"What makes you think we won't get them all?"
"That's the dumbest thing you've said--"
A loud, appreciative wolf whistle cut her off and jerked him back to reality. "Come on. Get in the car. Before the next obnoxious idiot shoots a bullet instead of a whistle out his window."
She didn't budge. "Um...there's just one teeny, tiny, teensy-weensy problem here."
Yeah, her. "What's the problem now?"
"That's your assigned car, not mine. Do you figure you'll telepathetically drive mine back to the apartment?"
This was pathetic, all right. "Woman, you could drive a man right into a loony bin." He ran a hand through his hair. "No, I can't drive both cars back, nor can I come back by myself later. Go ahead. Drive yourself."
He looked around for his car's clone, but didn't see it anywhere. "So what'd you do with it?"
"I parked it out back, in the salon's lot. What'd you want me to do with it? Stick it in my pocket?"
Nothing fit in the pocket of her slim linen pants. "All right, Carlie. I'll walk you back to the car."
They began the trudge back toward Nail It. Dan looked up at the marquee, and shook his head. How much more ridiculous could a place get than to advertise its work with a gargantuan neon fingernail decorated with a hammer and--yes, of course--a nail, the pointed steel kind?
"While we're at it," Carlie said as they reached the parking lot, "how about a better set of wheels? I mean, really. It barely moves. Do I look like I want to be a moving target in a poky-slow car?"
Against his better judgment, Dan looked at his gorgeous charge. From the top of her fabulous lioness's mane, to the satiny cream skin over model's features, to a curvy, feminine figure encased in the latest light green silk and old-gold linen, and all the way down to the feet in strappy, high-heeled green leather sandals--toenails coated with chipped polish--Carlotta Papparelli, mobster's widow, looked nothing like any target he'd ever seen.
And yet, at the same time, beautiful as she was, she was a target.
"Get real," he said. "A peacock car would be like waving a red cape at an angry bull. You need to blend in. That's the reason for the plain agency car, since there's not a lot we can do about you--unless you're ready for plastic surgery and a hair makeover."
She rolled her eyes--again. She was quite proficient at it, too. "Get over it, Danny Boy. I'm a blonde, not a boring bland, bland, bland, like the car."
That's for sure, that trouble-making corner of his head retorted. "Let's get something straight. You're no boring bland but a bottle blonde--"
"Ouch! That's not nice--"
"Neither are the guys after you." Would she ever get it? He went on as if she hadn't interrupted him. "And in the second place, no one calls me Danny Boy and lives."
"Wow! I never thought I'd ever see it--didn't know you even had it. A sense of humor, that is. Is it an FBI requirement to be grim, gloomy and glum--eeeeek!"
She could've busted a window--maybe she did, but Dan didn't bother to check. He grabbed the shaking woman and shielded her body with his. That's how he approached the beige car.
He realized this might be Carlie's wake-up call. The formerly boring midsize model now sported a particularly realistic portrait of a massive rodent, and in case the observer didn't quite get the message, under the critter, it read RAT.
Dan pulled out his gun, held it in front as he approached the graffitied vehicle then gestured for Carlie to stay where she stood. When he circled the car, he noted an even more grisly message across the back window. The artist had detailed a skull and crossbones severed from a stick-figure skeleton. Again, the creative creep had titled his work RAT.
Dan turned and saw Carlie's face glued to the passenger side window--the woman didn't listen worth a dime. Before he could yell at her--again--she resumed her wail.
"Yuck! There's a big, fat, repulsive rat in the front seat. Oh, would you look at that?" She looked at Dan and pointed. "Did you know their tails were that long? And hairless?"
"And what's all that white fuzz all over the place--oh, that is so sick." She shuddered. "It's built itself a nest."
Dan shrugged. "Rats need homes. What can you do?"
"You are crazy." She headed back toward the front of the nail salon. "I'll have you know, Super-Duper Agent Daniel Maddox, that's no longer my car. As of right now. We can go back to yours, and you can have your pals from the Bureau pick up the rodent palace. I'm outta here."
Dan ran to her side, slid the gun back into the holster under his jacket, and reality slipped away. Slipped away? Yeah, right. It was zipping down the sanity highway, but what could he do? He'd been saddled with a beautiful but crazy witness.
She beat him to the car and stood at the passenger door. She crossed her arms. She tapped the toe of her stiletto-heeled sandal, as if she'd been there forever.
He unlocked the door. "Get in."
"Yes, Mr. Gracious."
Okay. It wasn't the nicest thing he'd ever done. But he was frustrated, they hadn't taught him how to deal with this kind of witness at Bureau training, much less law school, and she took too much pleasure driving him nuts. He slammed the door shut the minute her rear hit the seat.
And he had to keep her alive long enough to get convictions on her family and their dubious friends? He shook his head, rounded the vehicle, sat behind the wheel and peeled away, all without another word.
While he drove in silent mode, he continued to fume. Now he had to call Eliza, his supervising Special Agent. Not something a man--anyone--in his right mind would want to do. But from where he stood, he had no choice.
To be more accurate, Carlie had left him no choice.
He didn't know if he could keep her alive much longer. She refused to cooperate.
The next light turned against him. He sat and watched seconds crawl by. At his side, Carlie began to hum.