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Slick fingers slid down the length of the long, hard surface then back up again. Moist heat swirled up and around, dampening her skin, making her long for something that was taking far too long to achieve. she gave a good squeeze, gauging the liquid ready to ooze out, then rested her cheek against the familiar object she'd been longing to get her fingers around all day.
Ripley Logan finally judged the bathtub water deep enough, uncapped the bottle of bubble bath in her hand and upended it. she watched, mesmerized, as the contents mixed with the rapidly falling water. She couldn't wait to sink in and soak away the weariness that had built up through the long day.
Okay, she admitted, maybe she'd made more informed decisions in her life. Sitting on the side of the hotel room bathtub, she took a deep breath, allowing the smell of peaches to wash away some of her exhaustion. Who would have thought being a private investigator would be so grueling? Exciting, yes. That was the whole reason she'd learned how to handle a firearm, taken six months worth of specialized classes and studied up on the finer points of surveillance equipment. But her first case, and second day on the job, and she was wondering why no one had told her about the long hours, the countless people who wouldn't talk to her even if she threatened Chinese torture treatment and, well, the plain loneliness of the job. Turning the nearly empty bottle upright, she capped it then stretched to her feet. Muscles she'd forgotten she had hurt. If the reason for her tired state had been interesting, that would be one thing. Pounding the pavement looking for a woman who didn't want to be found was quite another.
She glanced at the time, then took off her watch and laid it on the sink. After midnight, and she was no closer to finding out anything more about a certain missing person, Nicole Bennett, than she had been twelve hours ago, roughly the time her plane set down at Memphis international Airport.
Ripley could practically hear her mother saying, "Maybe they'll take you back at your old job, honey. You do have six years in there. And you're a reliable and skilled worker. I'm sure they'll understand that you've had a change of heart."
Merely imagining the conversation with her mother was enough to snap Ripley's spine straight. The company she'd worked for had been bought out by another company, and a good third of the employees had been offered early retirement or attractive severance packages. She'd been the first in line to take one of the latter. of course, the part she'd never tell her mother was that she'd seen the offer as a sign that she should stop chomping at the bit and run full out. The perfect opportunity to do something more exciting with her life. Something that didn't involve carrying an extra pair of nylons in her purse and hours shopping for dress shoes that wouldn't kill her.
Not that she expected her motheror her father either, for that matterto understand her recent decision. Vivian Logan had been forty-five when she and Fred had given up trying to have a child of their own and adopted Ripley. They'd always been out of step with her friends' younger parents. While classmates were having cool birthday parties with roller-skating or movie themes, she had suffered through kool-Aid and cupcake get-togethers with games of pin the tail on the donkeyor worse, pinatas. It wouldn't have been so bad when she was five. But she'd been fifteen.
After the last humiliating experience, when her mother had introduced crazy string to the party and emptied an entire can on top of Jason McCaffee's handsome blond head, she'd talked her parents into the notion that she was an adult and no longer needed parties, and her birthdays were marked with a quiet dinner out with her parents.
Yes, she knew her latest career move would worry the hell out of them. But the thought of continuing with her blah life the way it was scared the hell out of her. It would be one thing if she actually made her parents happy by leading her life the way she thought they wanted her to. The problem was that they seemed ceaselessly exasperated by her decisions, especially during her very brief but frequent streaks of rebellion that neither began nor ended with adolescence. Rather, Ripley had come to suspect that the alter ego behind those streaks was the real her. And she'd found it was fun finally letting her out to play.
She unstrapped her brand-spanking-new nickel-plated 9mm from her shoulder holster and weighed the two and a half pounds of steel in her hands. Despite how many times she held it, she couldn't get used to seeing herself holding the firearm. She felt like a kid playing cowboys and was ceaselessly filled with the urge to point it and mouth, "Pow, pow!" Only if she did it now, the pow would put a very real hole in something or someone.
The pad of her index finger easily slid to rest against the trigger. Her thumb checked the safety. It was all she could do not to hold it out, close one eye and aim at an imaginary tobacco-chewing cowboy. Instead, she pushed the cartridge release, caught the magazine, then thrust it into place, shivering at the metallic clicks and scratches. She let the powerful firearm drop to her side, then placed it on the sink beside her watch. The way things were going, the only shooting action she'd ever see was at the range. She twisted her lips. Not that she thought she could shoot anyone if the situation called for it. There was a big difference between a black-and-white outline of an individual and an actual flesh-and-blood human being. But just the thought that she could if there was absolutely no other choice made her smile.
And to think, only last week her biggest physical risk had been getting a paper cut.
The problem was that right now she'd be downright ecstatic with a paper cut.
Ripley sighed and pushed her auburn curls from her face. Okay, so today hadn't been as thrilling as she'd hoped. But that didn't mean things wouldn't liven up tomorrow. If foul play was involved in Nicole Bennett's disappearance, then Ripley was going to uncover it. All she needed was a nice long bath and a good night's sleep. Things couldn't possibly look as bad in the morning.
Suds flooded over the side of the tub to pool at her feet. Ripley rushed to shut off the faucet. The water level was midtub. Perfect. She stripped out of her slacks, shirt and panties, then gingerly stepped into the tub. As she stood there, growing accustomed to the heat of the water, she glanced in the bathroom mirror, then did a double take. What was it about hotels that they had to position every mirror so that you had a view of every corner of the place, much less of your personal self? Choosing to ignore the bit of cellulite that begged for exercise on her right thigh, she noted that the bathroom mirror reflected the mirror on the bathroom door that in turn reflected off the mirror in the bedroom, which then revealed a view of the sitting room. She supposed some guests found comfort in seeing their surroundingsand perhaps even their stubborn cellulite. For Ripley it only served as a reminder that she was alone in one of the best hotel suites Memphis had to offer.
She reached out and pushed the door to close it. Only it didn't close all the way. As she sank into the silky bubbles she still had a sliver of a view of the rest of the suite. She closed her eyes, blocking it out.
Bubbles tickled her nose. She wiped them away with a bubble-laden hand. Well, that worked, didn't it? She grabbed for a towel and cleaned away the fragrant bubbles, then lay back and relaxed again. Her feet felt as if she'd just run the Boston Marathon. Either that or walked the entire distance between her home city of St. Louis to Memphis. Her body felt like she'd swum the Mississippi, which was visible just beyond the open balcony doors of her bedroom. What she wouldn't give for a thorough massage right now.
As far as she was concerned, massage was a highly underrated skill when it came to choosing members of the opposite sex. Out of the three guys she'd dated in the past five years, a total of zero had known what to do with his hands. She groaned, finding her mood going from bad to worse. After the last dating disaster, she'd given up trying to find that one guy for her, that soul mate magazines touted, the storybook prince little girls dreamed about. She'd gotten to the point where she'd accept companionship. The problem was none of the guys she had dated had been interested in that, either. So she'd decided that her entire life in general needed some livening up. Her friend Nelson Polk had made the fateful mistake of agreeing with her.
"Never found a woman who lived up to my idea of one, you know?" Nelson had said, the steel-wool-like tufts of hair above each ear not stirring as he shook his head and considered his next chess move. The late autumn weather had been mild, the St. Louis park teeming with people out to store up memories to see them through the winter ahead. "Took me three divorces and two bankruptcies to figure that one out. Don't let the same happen to you, Ripley."
That conversation had taken place seven months, two days and ten hours ago. Ripley could pinpoint the exact moment because it had been the only time Nelson had revealed a clue to what had led to his hanging up his P.I. hat and ultimately calling a homeless shelter home and the park his backyard. That moment would be forever locked in her mind because she could envision her life turning out just like his if she didn't do something about it now.
She had immediately voiced her thoughts to Nelson, expecting objections or arguments or even exasperation. Attempts to talk her out of her silly idea. Instead, he had smiled, neither encouraging her nor discouraging her. And she remembered thinking that if one day she ever did become a mother, that's the type of parent she would be. She wouldn't try to stuff her child into a mold. She would give her son or daughter the freedom to make his or her own decisions.
That conversation had opened an irreparable and irresistible crack in the mold she'd felt suffocated by her entire life, and she'd stepped right through it. She'd looked up shooting ranges in the phone book and held a gun in her hand for the very first time. A life-altering experience. Not because she harbored any secret desire to go around blasting people to kingdom come. That couldn't have been further from her mind. Rather the act of standing there with her feet planted at shoulder width pointing a .22 at the target a mere five yards away shined a spotlight on her and her life. In that one moment she'd known she was solely in charge of the direction she was going. That if she continued going with the flow, making as few waves as possible, she'd end washed up on shore somewhere wondering how in the hell she'd gotten there. She'd been a secretary because She frowned into the bubbles. It seemed so long ago even she could hardly remember. Her degree was in computer science. But she'd signed up with a temporary agency to get a feel for various companies and ended up staying a secretary. going with the flow.
A brief knock sounded on the hotel room door. Ripley snapped open her eyes. Room service forgot something, maybe? The bathroom mirror revealed her chef's salad still on the table in the sitting room, untouched, the requisite glass of water, side order of dressing and bread sticks all there. She reluctantly began sitting up when she heard what sounded suspiciously like a room key being slid into the lock mechanism, then an ominous click she was afraid had allowed entrance.
Someone was coming into her room.
Ripley stared wide-eyed into the mirror even as she slowly sank lower in the tub. The first thing she saw was two hands holding a nasty-looking gun. One that made her 9mm look like a toy.
This didn't make any sense. She'd spent all day beating the bushes, hoping for some sort of revealing reaction to her questions about Nicole Bennett's whereabouts. The most exciting response she'd gotten was a belch from the pawnshop owner whose coffee cup probably hadn't held coffee. At least she thought she hadn't caused any interesting reactions. She'd have to go back over her notes on reading people. Obviously she must have brushed past that section. And now there was onenow two and threegunmen slinking into her room.
Speaking of guns
Sloshing as little as possible, Ripley reached out and grabbed hers from the sink. Then disappeared completely under the bubbles.
Talk about being in over her head
Oh, boy, was this ever a night to remember.
Joe Pruitt tossed the shoe catalog to the hotel room floor then switched off the bedside light and lay back, folding his hands behind his head. Pale moonlight streamed in from the open balcony doors, reminding him of the overly bright sliver of moon he'd seen earlier. A moon made for lovers, he remembered thinking. He grimaced. Lovers. Yeah, right. For the past ten years his only lover had been his athletic-shoe company, Sole Survivor, Inc. Well, okay, maybe he wasn't being completely honest. There had been Tiffany in Texas. Nanette in North Dakota. Wendy in Washington. He just now realized the correlation between the names and the states, and his grimace deepened. Anyway, his relations with each of the women had lasted no more than a couple of weeks. Long enough for them to figure out that his company came first and everything else a very distant second, and for him to discover that once sex was out of the way, he had very little in common with any of the women. Not that it made much difference. He'd figured out a while ago that settling down wasn't in his blood.
Home base was in Minneapolis, but he had a house in San Francisco, an apartment in Chicago and a condo in New Jersey, and he probably couldn't recite the phone numbers of any of them. His cell phone. Now that was the important number.