CRIMSON HOUSE BOOKS
BY SUSANNA SHORE
PARANORMAL AND CONTEMPORARY ROMANCES, COSY MYSTERIES
Tracy Hayes, P.I. with the Eye
I was trying to keep a tray-full of champagne flutes from gliding to the floor when the thief struck. I was serving Mrs. Snobby-as-fuck at the time, and contemplating her impressive, jewel-adorned cleavage with fascinated horror. I was kind of hoping one of the milling guests at the upscale party would nudge me from behind, so that I could “accidentally” douse her with champagne—or the sparkling white wine the glasses actually contained, about which she’d been complaining to me for the past five minutes. But no one bumped into me.
I was sorely tempted to soak her anyway.
It wasn’t just her complaining that irritated me, or the fact that her dress, which she was too old and portly to wear, probably cost more than I made in a year. It wasn’t even that it was the night before Thanksgiving and I should’ve been at my parents’ house helping Mom prepare for it instead of serving simulacrum champagne and hors d’oeuvres to the who’s who of Brooklyn—and probably half of Manhattan as well.
No, it was the misery of being back to waitressing after three months as a private detective. And worse yet, my body had naturally activated the muscles needed to hold the large trays for hours on end while wearing high heels. I had been waitress extraordinaire once, and it was as if I’d never stopped. Even my attitude became subdued as befit a person in a servile position.
Not exactly my natural state.
The only thing that saved Mrs. I-know-champagne-when-I-taste-it from getting a bubbly white bath was the knowledge that this was only a temporary assignment. I wasn’t back to waitressing for good. I was undercover for a case. I couldn’t mess this up or my boss would be very upset. And when Jackson Dean, my boss at Jackson Dean Investigations, became upset, he got angry. Then he would yell at me, which would upset me.
It wasn’t so much the yelling that did it—he was entertaining to watch—but the knowledge that I’d earned his anger. I’d been on a roll this past month and preferred to continue my winning streak. He’d only yelled at me, like, once or maybe twice, if you counted the time I slept in and forgot to show up for our morning jog. He’d run two and a half miles from his home in Marine Park to Midwood where I lived, in rain, just to vent his aggravation to me.
“What is your name, girl?” Mrs. Real-champagne-has-tinier-bubbles demanded in a haughty tone you didn’t often hear outside British period dramas.
It wasn’t. My name’s Tracy Hayes, but I wasn’t going to tell her that. I was undercover, after all. However, why I gave her the name of my former roommate eluded me. Especially since it wasn’t the name I’d picked for this job. I’d chosen Henrietta Fern, for those curious, a name that had caused Jackson infinite mirth. His undercover name was Dean Jones, which totally lacked imagination in my opinion, but which he’d said was easy to remember in a tight spot. I guess he was right.
Don’t tell him I said that.
Jessica and I had parted on nasty terms about a month ago when she’d moved away with some of my furniture without asking my permission. I’d retaliated by confronting her in front of her date, one Thomas Thane Westley, a tech start-up millionaire and—incidentally—the host of the party tonight.
He hadn’t remembered me when he briefed Jackson and me about the evening, and Jessica was no longer his girlfriend, so I hadn’t had to face her here. But perhaps I’d been subconsciously bracing for the encounter and the name just popped out.
“Well, Jessica, why don’t you scurry into the kitchen and bring me proper champagne,” Mrs. I’m-too-important-to-be-served-inferior-stuff suggested with an arrogant sneer. I widened my professional smile from polite to indulgent, as if it were my privilege to serve her, and said, “Right away,” without the least intention of doing so, and turned to leave.
That’s when the fire alarm went off.
The entire roomful of people froze when the loud beeping started. The large loft apartment had an open floor plan—only the kitchen at the back and the bedrooms on the mezzanine were closed off—and the sound echoed from the high ceiling and bare redbrick walls, making it impossible to detect where it came from.
“Is that the fire alarm?” the woman demanded, affronted, as if it was a personal insult to her.
“I’ll go investigate.” I pushed the tray at her and she instinctively accepted it. Then I dashed off as fast as I could in my high-heels, ignoring her protests.
I located Jackson in the foyer at the foot of the curving metal and glass stairs leading up. I’d forgotten he was wearing a suit tonight, so it took me a moment to spot him, as I kept looking for a man in a black tee and jeans. I barely recognized him in his James Bond getup and I startled when my eyes landed on him. He looked good.
Don’t tell him I said that either.
“What’s going on?” I asked, raising my voice to be heard over the noise.
“Fucked if I know. I’ve been keeping an eye on these stairs the whole evening. No one’s gone up, so it can’t be the safe’s alarm.”
The reason we were undercover was to protect the host from being burglarized. There had been a series of break-ins at the finest homes in New York the past month, mostly on Manhattan and always during a party like this one. While the house was filled with people and the hosts busy, the thief snuck in, broke into the house safe, and left with whatever they contained. The police had no clues.
Thomas Thane Westley hadn’t wanted to take chances. “I don’t have valuables in my safe, but I do keep some important papers there.” Since he didn’t want to ruin his first big party after listing his company by bringing in the cops, he’d selected us. The police assumed the thief either impersonated a guest or was someone from the upper echelons of society to get an invitation, so we were here to keep an eye on the guests.
“I doubt I’ll be targeted, since the thief seems to know when there are valuables in the house, but better safe than sorry.”
It seemed Mr. Westley had been wrong. And that spelled trouble for us if we couldn’t handle the situation.
The irritating beeping continued without anyone seeming to be able to do anything about it. “I think it’s the fire alarm,” I said to Jackson, who nodded, sweeping his gaze over the guests, who were looking at each other uncertainly, wondering if the situation was serious enough to merit evacuation and leaving a perfectly good party.
“But what caused it? And is it genuine?”
“I’ll go check the kitchen,” I said, assuming that if there was a fire, the kitchen was the likeliest source.
I’d barely taken a step towards the other end of the room where the kitchen was when there was a sort of “whoosh” sound and the sprinklers began spewing cold water on us. It cut off the beeping, so I took it as an improvement. Not so the others.
Screams and curses filled the air, and the guests began milling towards the front door, their heads pressed down and hands over their heads to protect their fine hairdos, as if it would help against the determination of the finest sprinkler system money could buy. In mere moments, everyone and everything was drenched and the floor was swimming.
Jackson took instant charge. He was a former cop, so he was trained for it, and he was the kind of person who naturally assumed he was the one you should listen to when things went apeshit. He rushed to open the door out of the apartment and began to issue orders about exiting in an orderly fashion and not to use the elevator. I don’t think anyone paid any attention. They were in too much of a hurry to get out of the cold water raining down.
I wanted to flee too. I didn’t have a death wish, and a house fire was one of my least favorite ways to die. But I didn’t see or smell any smoke, and since I was wet anyway, I couldn’t get more miserable than I already was. My clothes weren’t expensive and a couple of drops of water wouldn’t ruin them.
I retreated a few steps up the stairs to get out of the way of the people pushing towards the door. Water was dripping down my face and into my eyes, but from my higher vantage point I got a good look at how Brooklyn’s finest treated each other in a crisis situation. It was pretty ugly. I wouldn’t trust any of them to have my back. There wasn’t a woman so old or so feeble that she wouldn’t be pushed out of the way by a strong younger man. I was about to dash over to one such woman when she bashed one such man with her handbag. She clearly didn’t need any help from me.
The crowd was thinning, but not very fast—the door wasn’t wide enough for their disorderly exit. But they were consistently pushing to the same direction.
All but one man. He was calmly heading to the kitchen as if he didn’t even notice the chaos around him.
Now, he could’ve been a man blessed with more than common sense, who had realized that the place had to have a second exit through the kitchen that no one else was taking. But there was something in his studied nonchalance that instantly put my Spidey senses on alert. Or whatever senses private detectives have.
I considered my course of action for as long as it took me to slip off my high heels. Then I pushed into the exiting throng, as heedless of their well-being as they were of each others’. I’m average height, and half the Brooklyn Nets seemed to be among the guests, judging by how they towered over me, but what I lacked in vertical reach, I more than made up for with the sharpness of my elbows. They met their targets unerringly, and in no time at all I was through the milling people. The floor clear before me, I took off at full speed—or as fast as I was able to through the water—after the man who had already disappeared into the kitchen.
Behind me, the first shouts erupted:
And then the inevitable: “Did that girl take them?”
“Stop that girl!”
But I couldn’t pause to tell them they had the wrong person, because I now knew I had the right one. Sliding on the wet hardwood floor, I pushed through the swinging doors into the kitchen, only to see the man exit through the open back door.
“Halt!” I shouted, a bit breathless, not sure if it was wise to alert the man to my pursuit, but hoping he would obey so that I wouldn’t have to continue chasing him.
That didn’t happen.
He shot down the back stairs and I did my best Bambi-on-ice impression running after him over the slippery tile floor, bumping against the kitchen island and hurting my hip in the process. I didn’t let that slow me down and was soon at the stairs too, taking them down as fast as I could. At least the sprinklers weren’t spewing water there, so it was safer going. I could see him two floors down already, an impossible head start in a normal situation, but I was pumped up on adrenaline and determination, and I knew I would catch him.
That didn’t happen either—but I came really close. The service entrance was locked and the man had to pause to switch the two handles designed to piss off a harried housekeeper with her hands full trying to get through. He only had one hand free; the other held a black velvet pouch that I assumed contained his ill-gained goods. He fumbled with the lock, giving me a chance to reach the ground floor too.
“This is the police!” I shouted, totally untruthfully—and illegally—but he was a thief and I didn’t think a small lie would be such a big deal. Only it was.
The man abandoned the door for long enough to turn sharply around and pitch the pouch in his hand at me like he was on the mound in the middle of the Yankee Stadium. It felt like a baseball too when it hit me in the face, dropping me like a fly.
The next thing I knew was Jackson’s blurry face hovering above me. “Tracy! Talk to me. Are you all right?”
“Goffmyface,” I slurred, pushing his chest for further measure, but neither had any impact on him.
I blinked until his face sharpened. It was a nice face, clean-lined and manly, but fascinatingly unnoticeable when he wanted it to be. It was crowned with slightly overgrown dark brown hair—now wet and plastered around his face like he was modelling for the cover of a Regency romance—and brown eyes that could see through your bullshit when he wanted the truth out of you. Currently they were worried, the little lines around them softened.
“You have a nice face,” I stated. He shook his head, but a small smile lifted the corner of his mouth.
“You have a concussion. I have to get you to the hospital.”
“No, you have to run after the thief,” I remembered, trying to get up, but a dizzy spell made spots dance in my eyes, so I changed direction and lay down instead.
“What? Who? Is that why you took off like that?”
“Yes.” I thought it was plenty of information, but the down-tilt of his straight dark brows indicated otherwise. “I saw a man who headed calmly to the kitchen instead of rushing to the front door in a panic, and got suspicious. When I ran after him, he fled, confirming my suspicions.” Honest men didn’t flee; that was a cop fact. “I almost caught him too, but then he threw his loot at my face.” I turned my head in both directions, but the floor was empty. Figured he’d taken time to fetch it back. Had he even checked if I was all right?
Jackson’s frown deepened to scary, but for once it wasn’t directed at me. He probed my face with gentle fingers, and I winced in pain when he hit the good spot on my temple.
“Nose isn’t broken at least, but you’ll have a black eye tomorrow,” he declared. He felt the back of my head. “There’s a bump here you probably got when you fainted.”
“I did not faint,” I said indignantly. “I was knocked out.”
“Even worse. The police are on their way. Can you get up? You have to talk to them before we go to the hospital.”
“Aren’t you running after the thief?”
“It took me almost five minutes to get here. He’s long gone.”
Five minutes was a long time to be unconscious, but with Jackson’s help I managed to get up, mostly because I’d started to feel cold on the tile floor in my wet clothes and didn’t want to lie there anymore. I felt slightly nauseated, but at least not like I needed to throw up. His arm around my waist holding me up, Jackson walked me into the huge service elevator at the end of the hallway, propped me against its wall, and pushed the button to the top floor.
“I thought you said no elevators.”
“There was no fire, so they’re safe to use.”
It was a slow ride up the five floors in the steady service elevator, but still faster than walking in my current state. My head hurt, my face ached, and I shivered all over in the wet clothes that were clinging to my body. Jackson’s clothes hugged his body too, but the wet-dress-shirt look was made for his wide shoulders and tight abs that pushed against the fine, white—wet—cotton.
“Sexy…” I drawled, only realizing I’d said it aloud when he rolled his eyes, amused.
“The sooner we get your head scanned the better.”
“It’s hardly a sign of a brain damage if a girl appreciates a fine body,” I said defensively as I followed him out of the elevator, without his support this time.
“With you, it definitely is,” he countered.
“I’m perfectly capable of admiring male assets without a concussion.” I was too, though occasionally my reaction to them caused me to behave as if I had hit my head.
“I’ve seen it. Just not mine.”
“Maybe I would if you dressed like this all the time and not in endless black T-shirts.”
“I’ll stick to black, thanks,” he said dryly, leading me to the kitchen, where trays of perfectly good food and adequate sparkling white wine stood ruined by the water that had mercifully stopped falling. I gave them a mournful look as I followed Jackson to the main living area. I’d had my heart set on some of those little nibbles.
The main area hadn’t fared any better than the kitchen, but it was nothing money couldn’t replace, and Thomas Thane Westley had plenty of that. The beautiful hardwood floors would be lost though, if someone didn’t dry them as soon as possible. But since it wasn’t my problem, I just waded through the ankle-deep water to the man himself, a passable-looking guy in his late thirties, in an expensive—now ruined—suit. He was standing in the middle of the seating area, talking to two plainclothes detectives. Most of the guests had left, but a few of them had remained, probably those who had had their property stolen, judging by their reaction when they spotted me.
“There she is! Arrest her,” the horrible woman I’d been talking to when this started demanded with a loud voice. The jewels that had filled her cleavage were gone. The cops turned to me and grinned.
“If it isn’t the little apprentice P.I.,” one of them said, as if we knew each other well, even though I couldn’t even remember his name. He was, however, one of the cops from the 78th Precinct that was a block from our agency, and we often had our lunches in the same place near it. I knew all their faces. “What did you do this time?”
“I almost caught the thief,” I declared proudly.
“Almost doesn’t count in this business,” the other cop said—Pete something or other.
“It’s still closer than you’ve got. And I would’ve caught him too, if the bastard hadn’t thrown his loot at my face.”
This got their attention. “You have his description?”
“I do indeed.”
“You’ll have to come to the station and look through some photos,” Pete said, and I was about to agree when Jackson interfered.
“She was unconscious for more than five minutes. She has to go to the hospital first. She’ll look at them after the holidays.”
I saw nothing wrong with his plan, but the annoying woman inhaled audibly. “That is unacceptable. I demand you arrest this young woman immediately. She’s probably in league with the thief. She wouldn’t even serve me proper champagne!”
“Hey! This isn’t my party. I’m not responsible for the beverages. Blame him,” I said, miffed, pointing at Thomas Thane Westley. An indignant flush rose to his face.
“I’ll have you know it was the finest American sparkling wine,” he stated. But the woman would have none of that.
“I am not accustomed to drinking anything but champagne.”
“I’m not serving imported stuff when there’s a perfectly good domestic option available,” Westley declared, his voice trembling with patriotism I was pretty sure was faked, and so was the woman.
“You’re an upstart with no taste, and cheap to boot. Now, I demand to know, what are you going to do to recover my necklace?”
“This isn’t a time-sensitive case,” Pete said calmly. “We’ll look through the security footage and Miss Hayes will give her statement once the doctor releases her.” He put an emphasis on doctor, but it didn’t really mollify the woman.
“It was my grandmother’s emerald necklace! I cannot have it stay in the hands of some common thief.”
“Be that as may, we need to go to hospital,” Jackson said, and without waiting for an answer, took me by my arm and led me away.
An hour later I was lying on my back in the CT-scanner.
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