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I cut the headlights and turned onto Lunada Bay Road. Fog crept around the hilly street, clasping hands with the darkness. I could barely see more than a few feet ahead.
I eased my foot off the accelerator and parked two houses away from my target. I slipped into sneakers stored in the backseat of my car. Handy for walks on the Hermosa Beach Strand, undercover work, and kicking in doors, which I had yet to do, but there was always hope. I still wore my black pants and matching silk blouse from my day at the office. It would be easy to disappear into the night. There were six houses on the quiet cul de sac and not a streetlamp in sight.
A cool breeze whipped my hair across my face as I tiptoed across the short cement driveway. I'd waltz in and out of the place in less than ten minutes. The sliding glass door in the family room never latched quite right and hadn't since I graduated high school nearly a decade ago. The slider sat on a small balcony, just low enough for an amateur gymnast like myself to climb up and over. The master bedroom was at the opposite end of the Spanish style home, so the chances of being caught were nil. Plus, the occupant took her beauty sleep seriously.
I edged toward the side of the garage and unlatched the tall wooden gate leading to a trash area concealed by six-foot high stucco walls. In slow motion, I up-ended a plastic receptacle, climbed atop, and pulled myself onto the wall. I straightened, balancing like a tightrope walker, and leapt onto the side balcony, toes between slats, holding onto the wooden rail for dear life. My moves were awkward, but they got me there. I hoisted myself over the balustrade and landed in a huddle. I stood and grabbed the slider handle. I pulled it up and toward me, but the door wouldn't budge.
There was a trick to this, but what was it? Jiggling the handle? Pulling it down first? My ears perked. I crouched down low.
A light tapping sound, faint at first, grew louder. Closer. Footsteps. Someone was on the driveway. My mind fumbled over excuses for being on the balcony this time of night, but I didn't need any. The taps faded. Before I could stand, they grew loud again. And faster. They stopped closeby. I held my breath.
The gate to the trash enclosure creaked open. Months had gone by without my doing anything remotely resembling PI work ... until tonight. What were the odds a burglar would strike and use my means of entry?
I heard mumblings, and a male voice spitting out a rush of words.
"Pick up, pick up. Where are you?" A whisper rattled my side of the night.
Who was he calling? A cohort? I lifted my eyes. I spied the intruder's head and shoulders in the enclosure. Dark waves of hair bristled in random directions. The light of his smart phone made his profile glow. I recognized the ski-slopey nose and jumped to my feet. "Michael," I whispered.
He turned abruptly, dropped his phone, and stumbled, sending a trashcan crashing to the ground. The light turned on in the house next door. A window slid open. Michael ducked and so did I. A moment later, meows howled from the trash area, breaking the silence. I stifled a snicker. Michael did a fine impression of a soulful cat. Throaty meows grew louder, followed by a final meow at a higher pitch. The window slammed shut and the room went dark. We got to our feet at the same time.
"Don't you want to finish your song?" I asked.
"I can't remember the rest of the words." He stared at me, hazel eyes open wide. His breath escaped in short bursts. "I've been calling you all day, Corrie. Why are you sneaking around your mom's house?" "I could ask you the same." In my case, it kept my breaking and entering skills from getting rusty. And she had something I needed. Something she didn't need to know about. "What are you doing here?" "Looking for you. Everywhere. I went to your place. Called your office. Your cell. You didn't answer."
"It's on mute," I said.
We spoke in fast whispers, playing catch-up to make sense of this odd rendezvous. Michael and I had been best friends since junior high.
We'd spent a lot of quality time together lately, solving a homicide, but I hadn't heard from him in days.
"Don't you ever keep the ringer on? What if there's an emergency? Like now."
"You okay?" I asked him.
He turned and eased out of the enclosure. He shut the gate and tiptoed closer, until he stood below the balcony, head tilted back. "I am not okay," he whispered, moonlight in his hair. "I'm terrible." Beads of sweat splashed across his forehead. "I'm worse than terrible."
"Hold on." I threw a leg over the balustrade and dropped to the ground. At six feet, he had a few inches on me. His face was pale, his mouth hung open, and his gray dress shirt clung to his skin. I'd never seen him so distressed. "Wait a minute. This is serious. Talk to me."
"I'm not sure what happened. I marched into his office to tell him he was wrong." Michael spoke at an unnaturally high pitch. "He was wrong." His next words shot out in a stream. "It shouldn't have happened. I really messed things up. We gotta go." He grabbed my hand and turned to leave, but I stood firm. I looked up at the neighbor's window next door. No sign of life.
"Go where?" I asked. "Is there a problem at school?" Michael was co-associate dean at a small private tech college in Los Angeles.
"I'll say there is. Today, President MacTavish asked to see me. To tell me I was demoted. Without explanation. To junior faculty advisor. Effective immediately. I was stunned and ... mad. I wanted to punch him in his ... in his."
"Why would he demote you out of the blue?" I inched toward the street, Michael by my side.
"Ever since I started this job, he's had it out for me. Of course, he has it out for everyone. He told me I was a weak, pathetic excuse of an associate dean who should never have gotten the job in the first place."
"I stormed off and wrote a letter of resignation. It was a good one, too. I poured out all my feelings. The demotion made zero sense ... it wasn't right, Corrie."
"It sure wasn't. Not with your know-how and credentials." Michael had been a computer science professor at a big-name private tech college on the East Coast before taking this job.
"My demotion makes Alyce sole associate dean, and leaves me out in the cold."
Michael had mentioned Alyce before, and never in a flattering way. "She's your co-dean?"
"Was my co-dean. I can't believe it. I went back to Mac's office later. He was sitting at his desk when I went in. I told him how I felt. Got everything off my chest." Michael squeezed shut his eyes and flipped them open. "But then I had to call a timeout."
We'd reached the street. "He refused to talk to you?"
"You could say that. He was dead."CHAPTER 2
I was witnessing a different Michael tonight. Gone was the good-natured guy who didn't have a violent bone in his slim but athletically toned body. Before me stood a man who might consider using force on a case-by-case basis. Had I been a bad influence on him? A mild breeze rustled the fronds on a nearby palm tree. The chilly night yawned and moaned around us. Or maybe the moan came from me.
"Oh, dear goodness. I'm so sorry," I said. "Let's go inside Mom's and sit down. We'll use the front door this time."
"No, we can't. We've gotta go back to the crime scene."
"What crime scene? He was an old guy, wasn't he? He probably died of a heart attack."
"Trust me. He didn't die of natural causes."
"What? How do you know?"
He gulped. "I'll explain on the way." He darted toward his car. "Hold on." Michael stopped and turned to me. "I interrupted you. What were you doing?"
"Nothing that can't wait."
"You weren't going to —"
"Course not." I turned and headed to the road, Michael at my heels. Truth is, I was going to. Break into Mom's house, that is. She'd left me no choice. It's what any red blooded, fashion conscious, newly minted lawyer would do when she worked in a movie studio and had nothing to wear. Mom was the senior buyer of designer collections at Saks Fifth Avenue. She'd attached a padlock on her closet door after I'd borrowed a few items and returned one with a small stain ... and another with a rip in a seam. My work required a high-end wardrobe. Competence and clothes were valued equally in the entertainment industry. The last time I was at Mom's, the padlock had gone missing. But so had her choice wardrobe pieces. Tonight's plan was to sneak in, locate the new hiding spot, and borrow an item or two. I'd return them before she noticed. And we'd live happily ever after.
"Let's take my car." Michael's hand dug into his pockets. A thin black wallet tumbled out, followed by the clang of the car key.
I grabbed the key. "I'll drive."
Within minutes, I'd angled behind the wheel of Michael's BMW and aimed toward the 405 freeway. He was in no shape to drive. Even in his normal state, he motored like a geriatric on sedatives. Plus, I loved driving his M3. It was an older model, but it chewed up the asphalt and spit it out behind us.
"Tell me what happened." I sped through a red light. I'd slowed and checked the intersection before hurling through, but Michael bolted upright, his shoulders shot up to his ears. One hand gripped the top of the dash, the other the parking brake. "Let go of the brake, Michael." I uncurled his fingers, but he held on to my hand. "Talk to me."
He sucked in a breath. "I spent hours trying to cool down and finally went back to Mac's office. To give him my resignation letter. It was mostly dark when I got there. I couldn't find the light switch. That's what anger does to a person, makes a simple task impossible. I thought about turning on the lamp. But I didn't know if he'd get mad —"
"Right. I could barely see his silhouette sitting in the chair behind his desk. A light was on outside his window. He was leaning off to one side like he was reaching down for something on the floor. I told him what he did was unacceptable. I was so beside myself, I nearly knocked over this ugly orange lamp —"
"It gets worse." Michael leaned forward, one eye on me, and the other on the lumbering freeway traffic. "I walked toward him. Instead of handing him my letter of resignation, I crumpled and threw it at him. To show him I meant business. It landed in his lap. I expected him to explode, but he didn't flinch. He just kept right on leaning. I told him the demotion was uncalled for. That he could take my letter and shove it up his beef jerky butt. He didn't say a word. That wasn't like him. He was always blowing hot air. So I moved closer. That's when I saw it. Gleaming."
"The knife in his back."
"What? Are you sure? Did you call the police?"
"How could you not call the cops?"
He swallowed his Adam's apple and turned to face me. "I panicked. I backed away and bumped into the desk. I thought someone was standing behind me, so I jumped. The next thing I knew, I landed in Mac's lap. I scrambled out, knocking over a table and a plant on the way. I kept running 'til I got to my car."
"Are you sure he was dead?"
Michael gulped. "His hand was so cold. He was staring out. Not Blinking ..." He covered his eyes with a hand. "Corrie, there's a killer on the loose. And I didn't call the cops." He grabbed his phone. "Because..."
"Of the resignation letter."
"Nothing wrong with resigning."
Michael gulped. "It said more than 'I resign.'"
"It said you were leaving the school?"
He shook his head.
"That he was a demented old fool?"
The next words spilled out, "I said I'd kill to keep my job." Michael groaned and held his head in his hands.
"Oh, no." I eased off the freeway and pulled onto the shoulder of the road. I turned toward Michael. His handsome face had given way to despair. "For such a smart guy, that was a dumb thing to do."
"How was I supposed to know he'd get himself stabbed in the back? That's when I called you."
"Did you call James?"
James Zachary was Michael's other best friend. He was also the hottest assistant district attorney in Orange County, and maybe any county or even any continent, for that matter. James had helped me big-time with the homicide at the studio where I worked. The fact that Michael and James had both been part of that mix left me.. .with mixed feelings.
"A DA's the last person I'd want to call after messing with a crime scene. Besides, you're the daughter of the world's greatest PI."
My father had been gone nearly a year. A father I'd hardly known outside of time spent together trailing suspects, testing my crime scene knowledge, or target practicing at his indoor shooting range. "A PI who's no longer around."
"I didn't mean —"
"Did anyone see you go into the president's office?" I asked.
"No, well ... maybe. I don't know."
"Before we call the cops, we need to get your letter. And clean things up. Not necessarily in that order. We'll call afterward."
Fifty traffic-infested minutes later, we motored into the faculty lot of Los Angeles Technical University--LA Tech to the homies--where scientific, engineering, and technical overachievers gathered to shine. Michael had an undergrad degree from Princeton and a PhD from Stanford in computer science. He'd landed this gig about the same time I'd landed mine. Almost four months ago. It had been a roller coaster ride for us both ever since.
I parked in the first floor of a multi-level parking structure and turned to Michael. "Ready?"
He nodded and slipped on a jacket. We stepped out into the cool night. Cars whizzed past on Los Angeles Boulevard. The odor of escaping exhaust mingled with the scent of kitty litter, courtesy of droppings from a towering Jacaranda tree. A cloud of purple flowers haloed its branches; sticky petals and crushed brown pods lay pasted onto the concrete sidewalk. I shivered, but not for long. Michael eased my arms into a blue sweatshirt. The gold lettering across the front paid tribute to my alma mater, UCLA. He zipped me up.
"Thank you," I said. Even in his flustered state, he was thoughtful.
"Thank James. It's his sweatshirt. He threw it in my trunk after our last video game extravaganza. I forgot about it. Until now. But Corrie?" Michael squeezed my shoulders and managed a small smile. "Thank you."
"I haven't done anything yet."
"But you always do. And you dropped breaking into your mom's to help me." We walked side by side.
"That's what best friends do," I said. "More than best friends do that kind of stuff, too." Uh-oh. I was overcomplicating things. "Glad to help."
"This way," Michael said. He headed toward the street.
The campus sat nestled between stately manor homes and the looming shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains, ten minutes from downtown L.A. I tossed a look behind me to memorize where we'd parked in case we needed a fast exit. The structure's rooftop was a dead ringer for an airport hangar. That's what I told Michael.
"Those are solar panels." He dragged his sneakers. "Did you have to say dead?" His brows crumpled together, carving twin worry lines between them. "I can't go back in there."
"Don't go all Cowardly Lion on me. Be the king of beasts. If you're caught in a trap, gnaw off your paw and keep moving."
Michael straightened his shoulders. "You're right. I'll start gnawing."
"Inhale confidence. Exhale fear."
We dropped all talk and crossed the street, turning onto a garden path, past time-honored, white washed buildings housing classrooms and labs. The campus was tiny compared to UCLA's sprawling four hundred acres. I'd heard the student population at LA Tech hovered around two thousand. No chance of getting lost in the crowd.
We tramped across a dry patch of lawn and through a stark arcade. Michael paused by a pillar and pointed to a short flight of stairs leading to the Hall of Administration.
"He's in there," Michael said.
The entry was guarded by black iron gates flanked by stone columns. Elaborate shell and floral volutes topped the columns. The building belonged in the Getty Villa not a college campus.
"Are those gates locked?" I asked.
Michael's mouth nearly touched my ear, spreading goose bumps beneath my sweatshirt. "See that small black box on one side? That's a security door reader. I can swipe us in, but let's go stealth instead. We don't want to chance being seen. Come on."
I tailed his crouching figure across the lawn. We'd barely turned the corner of the Admin Hall when the front gate swung open. I paused mid-flight. A woman skipped down the concrete steps, smooth blonde hair flying behind her. She wore a short black dress that hugged her waist and flared at the hips. A bank of clouds shielded the moon, but enough light shone for me to see her angular face had a masculine touch. Long stork-like legs ended in a pair of ballet flats. What was she running from? Or to?
"Psst! Over here!" Michael surfaced from the shadows in a darkened edge of the building.
I joined him.
"That was her," he whispered.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Murder Gone Missing"
Copyright © 2018 Lida Sideris.
Excerpted by permission of Level Best Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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