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New York City, 2009
The air was stinking hot. A stale breeze carried the muffled noise of human and street traffic. Bad music thumped above; a dog barked below. It was one of those New York nights when no one in the city slept.
There had been two brownouts in two days, and the forecast called for even higher temperatures tomorrow. The police chief was asking for the public's cooperation. Would he get it? Damon Marlowe had no idea, and he didn't care. Hadn't since leaving the force two years ago.
Somewhere in the shadows of his Soho studio, a tap dripped. The pipe that fed it rattled, and the walls groaned. If he listened hard enough, he might hear the 1970s wallpaper peeling.
Stretched out on his sofa, with a cold beer dangling between his fingers, he watched a cockroach crawl along a thin ceiling crack. He counted five, ten tops, a night—a decent average for the neighborhood. There'd been twice as many in his ex's Los Angeles apartment.
The memory brought a twinge, then suddenly, there it was—the smothering crush of grief, dulled by time but still a force to be reckoned with. Or locked away when he chose not to deal with it.
He opted for the lock and a deep pull on the bottle.
Behind him, his cell phone erupted into classic Eric Clapton. He listened for a moment, swirled his beer, then gave in and reached back.
"Marlowe," he said.
"Would that be Damon Marlowe of DM and Associates?"
He almost smiled at the man's polite tone. Slight European accent, perfect diction. Caller ID revealed a Southern California area code.
"Hours are nine to nine," he replied and raised the bottle to his lips. "It's three minutes tomidnight here."
"I'll take that as a confirmation and say that I was referred to you by a former colleague, one who currently practices criminal law in Manhattan."
The caller seemed impressed. "So your reputation isn't exaggerated after all. Peter and I worked together in Los Angeles. My name is Umer Lugo. May I ask if you're engaged at the moment?"
Marlowe's lips curved into a faint smile. "I've got clients."
"Hardly unexpected. However, I've been authorized to offer you twice your usual rate, triple if you can finish what needs doing in under five days. I must warn you, though, I have little information about the party to be located."
Marlowe's humor, seldom stirred these days, kicked in. "This offer has a cloak-and-dagger ring to it, Mr. Lugo. As a former homicide cop, I prefer to drop the mystery and cut to the bottom line. Who do you want me to locate and why?"
"Three years ago, her name was Shannon Hunt. I have no clue what she calls herself today."
"Is there an outstanding warrant involved?"
"Nothing so dramatic, I'm afraid. The family simply wants her located and returned to the fold."
"How old is she?"
"Twenty-eight. Twenty-nine on Thanksgiving Day of this year. I can send you a photo, but it's possible she's altered her appearance."
Marlowe rolled the beaded bottle across his forehead. "Why?"
The lawyer sighed. "Are my reasons important?"
"If you want me to take the case, yeah."
"It's a matter of some delicacy. Shannon had a falling-out with a grandparent who recently lost his only other grandchild in a vehicular accident. When you're ninety-two, Mr. Marlowe, and your health is failing, you want to tie things up wherever possible and make amends. I'm sorry, but that's all the history I can give you. My practice is small but entirely reputable. Check me out if you wish. However, I would ask that you do so quickly. I'll need an answer by 6:00 a.m. your time."
Across the room, Marlowe's TV showed a carousel in motion. He saw a child's face fill with excitement as she clutched the golden pole.
Swinging his legs to the floor, he sat up, ran a hand through his hair. "Ninety-two, huh?"
"Unfortunately, I don't see ninety-three in the cards. Will you accept the job?"
Something in the man's tone set off a warning bell. Should he listen or not? Marlowe glanced at the TV screen, rocked his head from side to side. "Send me what you have. You check out, I'm on it."
"You're a good man, Mr. Marlowe."
A flicker of humor rose, dark and ominous. "Not good," he corrected. "Just a man."
Tossing the phone aside, he got up to snag the last cold beer.
"Darcy? Areyou there? For heaven's sake, answer. I've been leaving messages on your phone all day."
Elaine Holland sounded cranky, which was the last thing Darcy needed right then. "Radiator hose," she repeated to the baffled-looking man beside her with the wrench in his hand. She made a slicing motion. "It's split, leaking. Just take a look, okay?" She turned her attention back to the phone. "Sorry, Elaine, I haven't checked my messages today. My rental car broke down." Her eyes traveled around the weedy lot outside what might loosely be called a service station. "I, uh, might be a little late getting back."
The mechanic used the wrench to indicate a nearby goat, and Darcy got his message. He'd loan her the animal for a ride. She turned away. "I'm still in Nicaragua. Unfortunately, I don't know how to describe car parts in Spanish."
"So you're stranded."
"Damn. Did you talk to Dr. Aquilina?"
"Talked to, got photos of, visited his lab and his experimental farm. A world food shortage is imminent, in his opinion, but avoidable if we're willing to open our minds and our stomachs to worms, rye grass and something he calls 'cocoluna.' Chocolate from the moon. You don't want to know the details on that one." She thought about the feature article she was to write and the looming deadline. "Now, why have you been calling me all day?"
Her editor huffed. "A guy's been asking questions about you."
That got her attention. Leaving the mechanic to kick her tires, Darcy put some space between them. "What kind of questions?"
"Odd ones. The name Shannon came up, which meant nothing to me or anyone else at the magazine. But after a while and more than one chat, I realized he was looking for you. Is your middle name Shannon?"
"No." Darcy moved into the shade of the sagging station. "What did you tell him?"
"That you'd been here a little over a year, during which time our circulation has increased. I thought he was a cop at first, but turns out he's a P.I. So I asked myself, what would a P.I. want with my Darcy? That's when it hit me. You're a question mark, kiddo. A lovely person but a puzzle only partly solved. Your parents are dead, aren't they?"
"Yes." Darcy's gaze swept the choked, brown landscape. "What's his name?"
Meant nothing. "And he looks like…?"
"The guy's hot. Tall, very lean, with dark, wavy hair that hasn't seen a pair of scissors for months. He's not slick or polished, and as far as I can tell, he shoots from the hip. A bit thin, but the muscles are there for sure. I thought artist when I saw him, then rocker, then cop. Would you believe he has gold eyes? You'd say hazel, but the frustrated novelist in me saw an amber-eyed Heathcliff."
Darcy couldn't visualize anyone she knew.
She made another precautionary sweep of the area. Except for the goat, a dog the size of a Shetland pony and the mechanic, whose upper body had vanished under her car, there was no sign of life. Even the weeds were wilting in the glare of the sun.
"I checked his credentials," Elaine said. "Marlowe's for real. He works out of New York."
And Darcy worked out of Philadelphia for the moment, but credentials could be faked and identities altered. "Did you tell him where I am?" she asked.
"Hard to do since I wouldn't know if you drew me a map. Look, just get the hell out of there before the freaky Dr. Aquilina stops experimenting on worms and decides cannibalism's the way to go."
In spite of herself, Darcy laughed.
Her editor made a considering sound. "Do you have a cousin named Shannon? I thought you said you did."
"I'm ending this call now, Elaine. Wish me luck."
When he saw she was free, the mechanic waved her over. He smiled broadly and indicated the overheated engine.
"At least you're at the right end of the car." Swatting at a persistent wasp, Darcy slid the cell phone into her bag.
Then whirled around as a loud blast erupted from inside the ramshackle building.
"Three and half days." Umer Lugo handed Marlowe a certified check, drawn on his legal firm's Swiss account. "I'm pleased and impressed. She'll be back in Philadelphia on Thursday, you say?"
"That's the word at the magazine."
"Then I thank you for your services. I'll handle the matter from here." Lugo swept an arm around the crowded Turkish restaurant he'd chosen for their meeting. "Select anything you want from the menu and enjoy it at your leisure. I'll be in town until Ms. Nolan returns. Perhaps I'll relax while I wait. So many wonderful sights to see."
And while he wouldn't be seeing any of them, Marlowe thought the man talked a good game. Just not good enough to fool an ex-cop.
Not his concern, he decided, and shook the hand Lugo offered.
With the check stuffed in his pocket, he made a mental list of outstanding bills and calculated he might have enough left over for a trip to Chile. The Andes. Somewhere remote, where he didn't know a soul.
His phone, clipped to the waistband of his jeans, began playing Clapton. He checked the screen and saw the name of someone he hadn't heard from for years, not since they'd worked together in Los Angeles and again briefly in Chicago.
"Hey there, slugger." Regardless of the circumstances, Valentino Reade always sounded cheerful. "I heard you were in town. What's up?"
Propping his elbows on the table, Marlowe rubbed a tired eye. "According to your captain, no one in your division. Hell, Val," he said with a faint grin, "you punched an old woman in a bar."
"A cage-wrestling bar. We were making a bust. Things got out of hand."
The grin became a chuckle. "Word's out, and it's made its way to Manhattan. Blydon's got five of you on restricted duty."
"Nice to hear your voice, too, old friend. Look, I'm off duty in ninety minutes. You working?"
"Was." Guilt snaked through his system. He picked up a stained menu. "I thought about heading home tonight, but I might hang around for a few days instead."
"Are you hanging around for yourself or because of a woman?"
"None of your business."
"Hot woman, huh? I'm fascinated." He named a local bar. "I'll meet you at ten. If you get there first, ask for table ten. And bring money. I'm flat until Friday."
Marlowe shook his head as he ended the call. One thing about Val, no one was a stranger.
Someone pumped up the volume on an already loud Turkish folk song. No idea why that, coupled with the suffocating layers of heat, smoking incense and spicy food, should bring to mind a blue-eyed blonde he'd never met. But there she was, the woman he'd located, floating front and center in the haze across from him.
Picking up his glass of ouzo, he took a contemplative sip. And tried to figure out why a case that should be done refused to let his cop-trained senses rest in peace.
A BACKFIRING TRUCK.
If she'd been older, Darcy's heart would have stopped. Luckily, the only explosive device in the area had been an ancient Ford truck that had coughed and sputtered its way out of the rickety service bay, then died for good behind her rental car.
It hadn't been a promising sight.
Yet, here she was, Darcy reflected, at ten-twenty on a Thursday night, two cars, four flights and a cab ride later, home at last. She was still on alert, though, since no one but a P.I. sent by one of Frankie's brood would be asking questions about her.
She paid the cabdriver, then hoisted her laptop, shoulder bag and carry-on. Three years and one month had passed since Frankie Maco's trial. She'd lived incident-free in Chicago, Minneapolis and Dallas. She'd covered stories from London to Sydney to Shanghai. Beyond the fact that she hadn't liked the insect life in Australia, nothing really strange had happened.
Her cover had held in all those places and for all this time—until now.
"Darcy? Is that you? Oh, I'm so glad you're home."
Darcy halted as a woman clattered down the stairs of the old Victorian across the street. Hannah Brewster was a sight, right down to her flowered muumuu, her flip-flops and her clacking costume jewelry.
"I've got a package for you in my storage room." The older woman patted her heaving chest. "It's from Switzerland."
"That'll be my godmother. If I don't call her every month, she sends me a clock."
"It's Nana's quirky idea of a reminder." Darcy's conscience gave a tiny ping. "I, uh, have a lot of clocks."
Hannah waved that aside. "Count yourself lucky. My one and only clock is upstairs snoring, with his feet six inches from the AC unit. My husband, Eddie," she said at Darcy's puzzled expression. "He's a cuckoo clock. You name an upcoming sporting event, he'll tell you what time it's on. Poor dear lost his baseball buddies when three of our boarders moved out last month, but I'm slowly refilling the rooms. I took on a new one just yesterday."
Darcy slanted a look at her neighbor's darkened house. "Long-term or short?"
"Day-to-day, for the moment. But it costs more that way, so the arrangement could change. Dear?" She tapped Darcy's arm at her prolonged stare. "Are you all right? You know, jet lag can make people a bit loopy."
"I'm fine. What's your new boarder like?"
"His name's Hancock. He has an accent, though I can't pin it down. Possibly English. But he's not your type."
"I have a type?"
"You do, and Mr. Hancock isn't it. You need James Dean."
What she needed, Darcy reflected, were answers. For the life of her, however, she didn't see getting them tonight.
So she let it go and pulled her gaze from the boarding-house. "I'll pick up my package tomorrow, Mrs. B. Does your new man who's not my type have a first name?"
John Hancock… Okay, a bit pat, but not necessarily suspicious. She shifted her bags. "Maybe I'm tired at that," she murmured. "Good luck renting your rooms."
"Thank you, dear, and welcome home." Hannah fluttered a hand as she recrossed the street. "Don't worry about the rent until Monday. You're a wonderful tenant, and I'd hate to lose you."
Darcy gripped her suitcase and started along the sidewalk of what Hannah Brewster swore was the finest rental property in Philadelphia. All in all, it was probably fine enough. But when and if she ever settled, she wanted something simpler than turn-of-the-century American.