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Cynthia Leighton made a hard right turn into the parking lot of the Malibu Sheriff's station, her tires squealing slightly on the gritty pavement. She had the door open almost before the big Land Rover came to a complete stop, yanking the keys from the ignition and jamming them into the pocket of her leather jacket. With one foot out the door, she twisted around and leaned over to the square, pink box sitting on the passenger seat. It was tied with plain string, a tidy little bow centered almost exactly on the top of the thin cardboard. She slipped her fingers carefully under the bow and lifted. Then sliding out of the truck, she used one booted foot to slam the door shut.
The station house was a utilitarian building on a back street near the courthouse, with unadorned concrete stairs leading to a pair of double glass doors in heavy metal frames. Cynthia climbed the stairs quickly, slipping through the open door with a smile of gratitude to the older gentleman who held it for her before continuing down the stairs.
The desk sergeant gave her a big grin as she came through. "Hey, it's Nancy Drew!"
Cynthia put the box down gently on the counter. "This is for you," she said with some urgency. "Please take it away."
Sergeant Adam Linville's grin got even bigger. "Nancy, you are the woman of my dreams." He cut the string and opened the box, freeing the glorious aroma of sugar and fat to waft around the room.
Cynthia hissed dramatically and held out her hand in a warding gesture, her fingers forked against evil. "Take it away!"
Linville laughed. "Come on, Leighton, eat something." He wiggled his eyebrows. "I'm thinking of getting married again,you know, someone to keep me warm in my old age. You're a real looker and you're young enough, but I like a woman with some meat on her bones."
"I'll be sure to remember that if I ever lose my mind and decide to get married."
"All women want to get married. It's in your DNA or something."
"Not in mine, Sarge. Everyone I know is divorced."
"Such cynicism," Linville bemoaned. "It hurts my heart."
"Have a cream puff. It'll help." Cynthia said it with a smile. She liked Linville. He was a big, bluff, very white guy, with ruddy cheeks, who was set to retire in less than a year. She made a point of dropping by the Malibu station whenever he was on the desk, with pastries in hand. As a private investigator, it made good sense for her to stay friendly with the local police, especially in a small town like Malibu. Plus, she'd been with the LAPD before quitting to becoming a PI, and she kind of missed the sense of belonging to something bigger than herself. "So tell me, Sarge," she said. "Anything happening I should know about?"
"Now, Nancy, if you was supposed to know about it, you'd know, wouldn't you?"
"Come on," she coaxed, lifting the box and sliding it under his nose. "No gossip to share with a hard working PI?"
Linville took the box away from her, his rough hands dwarfing her tapered fingers. He set it on his desk and covered it carefully, before turning back to lean over the counter. "Really not much going on. Tourists have all gone home, more fools they. This is the best time of year around here." He shook his head. "The better for the rest of us, I guess."
Cynthia waited patiently. This was a little dance they went through every time, but Linville always came through for her, so she didn't mind.
"Had a call this morning east of Paradise Cove. Right before dawn, woman claimed she heard automatic weapons fire ... machine guns she called it. Said it sounded like a shoot out. A shoot out." Linville chuckled and shook his head. "A unit drove out, but didn't find nothin'. Figured the guy next door was pulling an all-nighter, watching too many of his own movies and playing 'em too loud. You know how sound carries down the beach."
"No one else reported anything?"
"Not a peep. Oh, and your wife beater's back. Got out on parole and what's the first thing he does? Pays a visit to the ex. Stupid. He didn't even get to the front door before she'd called us."
"You picked him up?" Cynthia had worked for the wife in the divorce case, documenting the husband's many infidelities. Turned out he beat up his girlfriends too.
"Oh, yeah. Right back in the slammer, parole violation. What an idiot."
"No accounting. Okay, I gotta run, Linville. You share those pastries now. Don't want you dropping dead with a heart attack before you meet the girl of your dreams."
Linville laughed and Cynthia saw him take his first gooey bite as she went back through the glass doors to the parking lot.
By the time she rolled into the private space behind her Santa Monica office, it was nearly six and the sun was a blinding haze of gold on the western horizon. The days were already growing shorter. Another six weeks or so and it would be full dark by now. She turned off the ignition and took a cautious look around the lot before opening her door. It never hurt to be careful in her business. She'd had a few threats in the past, mostly disgruntled spouses like the wife beater, or those she'd caught on film in flagrante delicto. Did people still say "caught on film" anymore? Digital cameras were far more convenient; zip off an e-mail to the client, photos attached. Caught on bytes, maybe? Whatever you called it, it was all the same. If Linville wanted to know why she was so cynical about marriage, he had only to take a look at her case files. One failed marriage after another, each chronicled in living color. Slinging the strap of her backpack over her shoulder, she climbed out and slammed the truck door.
Her security system beeped a welcome as she punched in the code and entered the small office she kept for herself. The whole building was hers--a long, low bungalow of four offices on busy Montana Avenue in the heart of Santa Monica's conspicuous consumption district. Not the touristy part, but the part where residents went to hang out and sip seven dollar lattes while waiting for their next big deal, or at least pretending to. She only used one of the offices, renting out the other three to a couple of lawyers and a therapist. Most of her clients never came to her office after their first visit, and when they did, it was usually after dark. Her late hours were perhaps a bit unusual, but it worked well enough for her human clients, and it opened possibilities to her other clientele. Vampires.
Cynthia had never planned on being the investigator of choice for the west coast vampire community. When she left the LAPD, she'd had something more like "investigator to the stars" in mind. Family connections gave her access to a world of privilege and entitlement, where spending a few thousand to have someone follow your cheating husband ... or wife ... was not only chump change, but almost a social dictate, like the latest fashions. Instead, by pure chance, Cyn had found herself in the right place to save a vampire's life and changed her own in the process. Vampires called her from as far away as Colorado and Montana. She didn't mind finding their long lost relatives or digging up forgotten bank accounts or family heirlooms. Half her business was for one vampire or another, and they paid very well. But she never accepted the personal invitations that sometimes followed. She had no desire to delve any further into a society where blood was the beverage of choice, and hers was on tap.
Her office phone was ringing when she walked in. She dropped everything on her desk and grabbed it before voice mail kicked in.
"Leighton," she said.
It was the lawyer next door. "I heard you pull into the parking lot," he explained. "And I wondered if maybe you had time to meet with a client of mine. She's here now. The usual cheating husband."
Cyn hoped the wife wasn't listening to the lawyer's blithe dismissal of her broken heart. She was tempted to decline the job. She might joke with Linville, but it really got to her sometimes. She sighed. On the other hand, she had no other cases on the horizon, and while she wouldn't exactly starve without the income, she did try to make the agency pay for itself. She told the lawyer to send his client on over.
Nearly an hour and a full box of Kleenex later, Cyn was regretting the impulse and thinking it was too bad the therapist wasn't in today, because this woman really needed someone to talk to far more than she needed a PI. But Cynthia was not going to be that someone. She'd learned the hard way not to get personally involved with her clients' marital problems. Some jilted spouses cried, some stared vacantly in a sort of bleak acceptance, and still others were mad as hell and determined to make the offending spouse suffer as much as possible. But they all had one thing in common. They were looking for someone to blame for their current predicament. And too often that blame fell on Cynthia for providing evidence of the very infidelity she'd been hired to uncover in the first place.
After ushering the distraught woman out the back door with assurances of sympathy and a speedy indictment of the wandering husband, Cyn sank down into her chair with a relieved breath and thought about taking the rest of the night off. On the one hand, with the information the wife had already provided, she could probably get the evidence she needed and close the case by morning; on the other--Her phone rang and she answered, hoping for a reprieve.
"Don't break my heart and tell me you have plans for tonight." It was a man's voice, filled with laughter beneath the smooth bourbon of a Southern accent.
"Breaking hearts is your specialty, not mine, Nicky. You in town?"
"I don't break hearts, darlin', I heal them with sweet love. Meet me."
Cynthia laughed. She couldn't help it. Nick was an unrepentant rogue, charming, handsome ... and an animal in bed. She thought about the latest cheating husband and shrugged. "When and where?"