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Blair Mallory Book 1: To Die For (Chapter Two)

A black-and-white pulled, lights flashing, to a stop in the front parking lot exactly four minutes and twenty-seven seconds later. I know because I timed them. When I tell a 911 operator that someone is shooting at me, I expect fast service from the police department my taxes help support, and I had decided that anything under five minutes was reasonable. There's a little bit of diva in me that I try to keep bitch-slapped into submission, because it's true that people are more cooperative if you aren't snapping their heads off (go figure), and I make it a point to be as nice to people as I can-my ex-husband excluded-but all bets are off when I fear for my life.

Not that I was hysterical or anything. I didn't charge out the front door and throw myself into the arms of the boys in blue-I wanted to, but they emerged from their patrol car with their hands on their pistol butts, and I suspected they'd shoot at me, too, if I ran at them. I'd had enough of that for one night, so though I turned on the lights and unlocked the front door, I stayed just inside the door, where they could see me but I was protected from any lurking psycho-bitch. Also, the drizzle had turned into rain and I didn't want to get wet.

I was calm. I wasn't jumping up and down and shrieking. Granted, the adrenaline and stress had caught up with me and I was shaking from head to toe, and I really wanted to call Mom, but I toughed it out and didn't even cry.

"We have a report of shots being fired at this location, ma'am," one of the cops said as I stepped back and let them enter. His alert gaze was studying every detail of the empty reception area, probably searching for people with weapons. He looked to be in his late twenties, with a buzz cut and a thick neck that told me he worked out. He wasn't one of my clients, though, because I knew them all. Maybe I could show him around the facilities while he was here, after they had arrested Nicole's ass and hauled her off to the psych ward. Hey, never miss an opportunity to expand your client base, right?

"Just one shot," I said. I held out my hand. "I'm Blair Mallory, and I own Great Bods."

I don't think many people properly introduce themselves to cops, because both of them looked taken aback. The other cop looked even younger, a baby cop, but he recovered first and actually shook my hand. "Ma'am," he said politely, then took a little notebook out of his pocket and wrote down my name. "I'm Officer Barstow, and this is Officer Spangler."

"Thank you for coming," I said, giving them my best smile. Yes, I was still shaking, but good manners are good manners.

They were subtly less wary, since I was obviously not armed. I was wearing a midriff-baring pink halter-top and black yoga pants, so I didn't even have any pockets where I might hide anything. Office Spangler removed his hand from his pistol. "What's going on?" he asked.

"This afternoon I had some trouble with a client, Nicole Goodwin"-her name was dutifully noted in Officer Barstow's little notebook-"when I refused to renew her membership based on numerous complaints filed by other members. She became violent, knocked things off the desk, called me names, things like that-"

"Did she strike you?" Spangler asked.

"No, but she was waiting for me tonight when I locked up. Her car was in the parking lot in back, where the employees park. It was still there when I called nine-one-one, though she's probably gone by now. I could see her and someone else, I think a man, by her car. I heard a shot and dropped to the ground behind my car, then someone-I think the man-drove off, but Nicole stayed, or at least her car did. I stayed low, got back inside the building, and called nine-one-one."

"Are you sure it was a gunshot you heard?"

"Yes, of course." Please. This was the south, North Carolina, specifically. Of course I knew how gunshots sounded. I had even shot a.22 rifle myself. Grampie-my grandfather on my mother's side-used to take me with him squirrel hunting when we visited them in the country. He died from a heart attack when I was ten, and no one ever took me squirrel hunting again. Still, that isn't a sound you forget, even if a television program weren't reminding you every few seconds.

Now, cops don't go blithely walking up to a car where supposedly an armed psycho-bitch is sitting. After ascertaining that the white Mustang was indeed still parked out back, Officers Barstow and Spangler talked into their cute little radios that were attached to their shoulders somehow-Velcro, maybe-and very shortly another black-and-white unit arrived, from which emerged Officers Washington and Vyskosigh. I had gone to school with DeMarius Washington, and he gave me a brief smile before his chiseled dark face once more set into businesslike lines. Vyskosigh was short and broad, mostly bald, and he was Not From Around Here, which is how southerners describe Yankees. To a southerner, that phrase explains everything, from taste in food and clothing to manners.

I was told to stay inside-no problem there-while the four cautiously went out into the darkness and rain to ask Nicole what the hell she was doing.

I was so very obedient-which shows how rattled I was-that I was still standing in exactly the same spot when Officer Vyskosigh came back inside and gave me a very sharp once-over. I was a bit taken aback. This just wasn't the time for ogling, you know?

"Ma'am," he said politely, "would you like to sit down?"

"Yes, I would," I replied, just as politely, and sat down in one of the visitors' chairs. I wondered what was going on outside. How much longer could this take?

After a few more minutes, more cars arrived outside, lights flashing. My parking lot was beginning to look like a cop convention. Good Lord, couldn't four cops handle Nicole? They'd had to call in reinforcements? She must be even more psycho than I'd realized. I've heard that when people go nuts, they have superhuman strength. Nicole was definitely nuts. I had a mental picture of her tossing cops left and right as she strode toward me, and wondered if I should barricade myself inside my office.

Officer Vyskosigh didn't look as if he would let me do the barricade thing. In fact, I was beginning to think Officer Vyskosigh wasn't so much protecting me-as I'd originally thought-as guarding me. As in, making sure I didn't do… something.

Uh-oh.

Various scenarios began racing through my mind. If he was here to prevent me from doing something, what could that something be? Peeing? Paperwork? Both of which I did actually need to do, which is why they were first on my mental list, but I doubted the police department was interested in either of them. At least I hoped Officer Vyskosigh wasn't interested, particularly in the first item.

I didn't want to go there, so I jerked my thoughts back on track.

Neither were they concerned I might suddenly go berserk, rush out, and attack Nicole before they could stop me. I'm not the violent type, unless I'm extremely provoked; what's more, if any of them had been paying the least attention to me, they'd have noticed that I had a fresh manicure-the color was Iced Poppy, which was my newest favorite color. My hands looked really nice, if I do say so myself. Nicole wasn't worth a broken nail, so obviously she was safe from me.

By now it must be fairly clear that I can mentally dance around a subject for pretty much eternity, if there's something I really don't want to think about.

I really didn't want to think about why Officer Vyskosigh was standing guard over me. I really, really didn't.

Unfortunately, some things are just too big to ignore, and the truth cut into my mental do-si-do. The shock was almost like a physical blow; I actually jerked back in my chair.

"Oh, my God. That shot wasn't fired at me, was it?" I blurted. "Nicole- The man shot at her, didn't he? He shot-" Her, I started to say, but instead nausea welled hot and insistent in my throat and I had to swallow, hard. My ears started ringing and I realized I was about to do something ungraceful, such as fall out of the chair flat on my face, so I quickly bent over and put my head between my knees, and took deep breaths.

"Are you all right?" Office Vyskosigh asked, his voice barely audible above the ringing in my ears. I waved a hand at him to let him know I was conscious, and concentrated on breathing. In, out. In, out. I tried to pretend I was in a yoga class.

The ringing in my ears began to fade. I heard the front door open, heard multiple footsteps.

"She okay?" someone asked.

I waved my hand again. "Just give me a minute," I managed to say, though the words were directed at the floor. Another thirty seconds of controlled breathing pushed the nausea away, and cautiously I sat up.

The newcomers, two men, were dressed in street clothes, and they were each peeling off plastic gloves. Their clothes were damp from the rain, and their wet shoes had made tracks on my nice shiny floor. I glimpsed something red and wet on one glove, and the room spun around me. Quickly I bent back over.

Okay, I'm not usually such a fragile flower, but I hadn't had anything to eat since lunch and the time now had to be ten o'clock or even later, so my blood sugar was probably low.

"Do you need a medic?" one of the men asked.

I shook my head. "I'll be okay, but I'd be grateful if one of you would get me something to drink from the refrigerator in the break room." I pointed in the general direction. "It's back there, past my office. There should be a soft drink, or a bottle of sweet tea."

Officer Vyskosigh started in that direction, but one of the other men said, "Wait. I want to check that entrance."

So off he went, and Vyskosigh remained where he was. The other newcomer sat down beside me. I didn't like his shoes. I had a good view of them, since I was still bent over. They were black wingtips, the shoe equivalent of a polyester housedress. I'm sure there are really good quality black wingtips out there, but the style is awful. I don't know why men like them. Anyway, this guy's wingtips were wet, with water actually beaded on them. The hems of his pants legs were damp, too.

"I'm Detective Forester," he began.

Cautiously I raised my head a little, and held out my right hand. "I'm Blair Mallory." I almost said, Pleased to meet you, which of course I wasn't, at least not under these circumstances.

Like Officer Barstow, he took my hand and gave it one brief shake. I might not have liked his shoes, but he had a nice handshake, neither too tight nor too limp. You can tell a lot about a man by the way he shakes hands. "Ma'am, can you tell me what went on here tonight?"

He had manners, too. I eased into an upright position. The red-stained plastic gloves were nowhere in sight, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I launched into a replay of what I'd told Officers Barstow and Spangler; the other man returned with a bottle of sweet tea and even twisted the cap off for me before handing it over. I interrupted myself long enough to say thank you and take a long swallow of the cold tea, then resumed the tale.

When I was finished, Detective Forester introduced the other man-Detective MacInnes-and we did the social thing again. Detective MacInnes pulled one of the visitors' chairs around so that he was sitting at an angle to me. He was a tad older than Detective Forester, a little heavier, with graying hair and a heavy beard shadow. But though he looked chunky, I got the impression he was solid rather than soft.

"When you unlocked the back door and stepped out, why didn't the person you saw with Ms. Goodwin see you?" he asked.

"I turned off the hall light when I opened the door."

"How can you see what you're doing, if you turn off the light?"

"It's kind of a simultaneous thing," I said. "I guess sometimes the light is still on for a split second when I open the door, and sometimes it isn't. Tonight, I locked the dead bolt after my last employee left, because I stayed late and I don't want just anyone walking in. So, my keys are in my right hand, and I used my left to unlock the dead bolt and open the door while I'm turning out the lights with the edge of my hand." I made a downward motion with my right hand, showing him how I did it. You have something in your hands, that's how you do it. Everyone does it that way. If you have hands, that is, and most people do, right? Some people don't, and I guess they use whatever they can, but I obviously had hands-Never mind. It's that mental dance thing again. I took a deep breath and brought my mind back to order. "It depends on the exact timing, but the odds are that half the time there aren't any lights on when I open the door. Want me to show you?"

"Maybe later," Detective MacInnes said. "What happened after you opened the door?"

"I stepped out, locked the door, and turned around. That's when I saw the Mustang."

"You didn't see it before?"

"No. My car is right in front of the door, plus when I step out, I'm already turning back to lock it."

He asked question after question, nitpicking details, and I answered patiently. I told him how I'd hit the ground when I heard the shot, and showed him the dirt stains on my clothes. That was also when I noticed that I'd skinned the palm of my left hand. I wish someone would explain to me how something I hadn't even noticed before began stinging like hell the moment I did notice it. I frowned at my palm, and picked at the loosened skin. "I need to wash my hands," I said, interrupting the endless questions.

Both detectives looked at me with cop eyes. "Not yet," MacInnes finally said. "I'd like to get this interview finished."

Okay, fine. I understood. Nicole was dead, we'd had an altercation earlier in the day, and I was the only one there. They had to cover all bases, and on the face of things I was first base, so they were covering me.

I suddenly thought of my cell phone. "Oh, I meant to tell you; I was in the middle of dialing nine-one-one when I heard the shot and hit the dirt, and I dropped my cell phone. I felt around but couldn't find it. Could you have someone check around my car? It has to be there."

MacInnes nodded to Vyskosigh, and the officer took himself off, flashlight in hand. He returned just a few moments later with my cell phone, which he gave to Detective MacInnes. "It was lying facedown under the car," he said.

The detective looked at the little screen on the phone. When you start to make a call, the screen lights up, but it doesn't stay lit; after thirty seconds or so-and I'm guessing, because, while I might time the arrival of cops, I haven't yet timed the light on my cell phone-the screen goes dark, but if you've actually pressed any numbers, they stay on the screen. Sitting in my well-lit reception area, the numbers would be visible even without the backlighting.

I was tired, I was shaken up, and I was sick at the thought of Nicole being shot basically right in front of me. I wanted them to hurry up and get past first base-me-and move on so I could go somewhere private and cry. So I said, "I know I'm the only one here and all you have is my word that things happened the way I said, but isn't there something you can do to speed this up? A lie detector test, maybe?" That wasn't the best idea I've ever had, because I felt as if my heart were trying to run the Kentucky Derby, which is bound to screw up a polygraph. I tried to think of something else to distract the detectives, in case they decided that, yeah, a polygraph administered on the spot might be just the ticket. I don't know if they do things like that, but I didn't want to take the chance. Besides, I've watched cop shows on television, and I know they have ways of proving if someone has fired a gun. "Or how about one of those thingie tests?"

Detective MacInnes sucked in one cheek, which made his face look lopsided. " 'Thingie test'?" he asked in a careful tone of voice.

"You know. On my hands. So you can tell if I've fired a gun."

"Ohhh," he said knowingly, nodding his head and shooting a quick, quelling glance at his partner, who had made a muffled noise. "That thingie test. You mean for gunpowder residue?"

"That's it," I said. Yes, I know they were trying hard not to laugh at me, but sometimes the dumb-blond stereotype has its uses. The less threatening I could appear, the better.

Well, Detective MacInnes took me at my word. A crime scene technician came with a tackle box full of stuff, and did an Instant Shooter I.D. test, rubbing my palms with fiberglass swabs, then putting the swabs in some chemical that was supposed to change colors if I had any gunpowder on my hands. I didn't. I had expected them to spray my hands with something and hold them under a black light, but when I asked the technician, he said that was old hat. You learn something new every day.

Not that MacInnes and Forester relaxed procedure in any way after that. They kept asking questions-could I see the man's features, tell what make of car he was driving, and so forth-while my car, the entire building, and adjacent properties were diligently searched, and only after they turned up nothing in the way of wet clothing did they conclude the interview, without even telling me not to leave town.

I knew Nicole had been shot at close range, because I had seen the man standing with her. Since she was lying beside her car at the far end of the parking lot, in the rain, and since I was the only completely dry person there-which was why they had looked for wet clothing, to make certain I hadn't changed clothes-I therefore had not been out in the rain and couldn't have done the deed myself. There were no wet prints other than those made by the officers coming in the front door; the back entrance was dry. My shoes were dry. My hands were dirty-indicating I hadn't washed them-and my clothes were soiled. My cell phone had been under the car, with the 9-1 clearly visible in the window to show I had started to dial 911. In short, what they saw jibed with what I said, which is always a good thing.

I escaped to the bathroom, where I took care of a pressing problem, then washed my hands. The skinned patch on my palm was stinging, so then I went into my office and took out my first-aid kit. I squirted some antibiotic salve on the scrape, then covered it with a giant-size adhesive bandage.

I thought about calling Mom, just in case someone had heard something on their police scanner and called her, which would scare her and Dad to death, but figured it would be smarter to first ask the detectives if making calls was okay. I went to my office door and looked out, but they were busy and I didn't interrupt.

Frankly, my butt was dragging. I was exhausted. The rain was pouring down and the sound made me even more tired, while the flashing lights outside gave me a headache. The cops looked tired, too, and miserably wet despite their rain gear. The best thing I could do, I decided, was make coffee. What cop didn't like coffee?

I like flavored coffees, and always kept a variety of flavors in my office for my personal use, but in my experience men aren't very adventurous when it comes to coffee-at least, southern men aren't. A man from Seattle might not turn a hair at chocolate-almond-flavored coffee, or raspberry chocolate, but southern men generally want their coffee to taste like coffee and nothing else. I keep a nice, smooth breakfast blend for those with Y chromosomes, so I got it out of my supply cabinet and began scooping it into a paper filter. Then I added a dash of salt, which counteracts the natural bitterness of coffee, and just for good measure added one scoop of my chocolate-almond. That wouldn't be enough for them to taste, but would give the brew an added mellowness.

My coffeemaker is one of those two-pot Bunn machines that makes an entire pot of coffee in about two minutes flat. No, I haven't timed it, but I can go pee while it's making and it'll be finished when I am, which means it's pretty damn fast.

I put one pot under the spout and used the other pot to pour in the water. While the coffee was making, I got out a supply of polystyrene coffee cups, creamer, sugar, red plastic stirrers, and arranged them beside the coffeemaker.

Very shortly Detective Forester followed his nose into my office, his sharp gaze noting the coffeemaker as soon as he entered.

"I just made a fresh pot of coffee," I said as I sipped from my own cup, which was a nice cheerful yellow with the words "FORGIVE YOUR ENEMIES-IT MESSES WITH THEIR HEADS" emblazoned in purple around the bottom. Polystyrene is hell on lipstick, so I always use a real pottery cup-not that I had on any lipstick, but that's beside the point. "Would you like some?"

"Has a cat got a tail?" he asked rhetorically, moving toward the pot.

"Depends on whether or not it's a Manx."

"Not."

"Then, yes, the cat has a tail. Barring any unfortunate accidents, that is."

He was smiling as he poured himself a cup. Cops must use telepathy to pass along the word that there's fresh coffee in the vicinity, because within minutes there was a steady stream of both uniformed and plainclothes peacekeepers coming to my door. I put the first pot on the warmer on top, and began making a second pot. Soon I was switching pots again, and the third batch of coffee was brewing.

Making coffee kept me busy, and made the night a little less miserable for the cops. I actually got to drink a second cup myself. I probably wouldn't be able to sleep that night anyway, so why not?

I asked Detective MacInnes if I could I call my mom, and he didn't say no, he just said he'd appreciate it if I waited a while, because if he knew mothers, she'd come rushing down and he'd like to get the crime scene wrapped up first. Put like that-he was a man who understood mothers, all right-I just sat at my desk and sipped my coffee and tried to stop the trembling that kept seizing me at unexpected moments.

I should have called Mom anyway, so she could rush down and take care of me. The night had been bad enough already, right? Well, it got worse.

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