Authors: Laura Disilverio
Unless she was eating the world’s smallest muffins, she needed to burn at least twice that many calories to work it off, but I didn’t mention that. I exercised to stay sane, not to keep my weight in check, and it amazed me how some people go through life making mental calculations about calories in and calories out. How do they enjoy either eating or exercising that way? The thought brought Joel to mind; I’d been trying to help him get started on a regular exercise program because he was trying to lose weight for a woman he liked. He hadn’t joined me at the pool in several days and I needed to poke him.
Once the doors were secured again, I returned to the security office, where I found Edgar Ambrose already waiting. He sat at a desk, working a crossword puzzle, but looked up when I came through the doors.
“You’re early,” I said. It was not quite five o’clock and he wasn’t due in for the day shift until seven.
“It’s my thank-you,” he said, smiling broadly. “For taking my shift. A mid’s tough when you’re used to days.”
“You’ve got that right,” I said, not about to complain about getting off-shift early. “It seems harder than it used to. I must be getting old.”
Edgar laughed. “Just wait.”
Pulling up the log, I briefed him about chasing an unknown intruder through the storage room. “The police took a report. If Detective Helland stops by, tell him he can call me any time after noon. I’ll be sleeping until then.” I yawned.
“Will do.” Edgar gave me a two-fingered salute.
“Good luck with impressing Vandelinde,” I said.
I left Edgar to man the fort and walked to my Miata, parked in its usual spot outside Macy’s. After unlocking it, I dumped my gym bag in the passenger seat and slid onto my seat with a sigh. My bed was going to feel good. As I thunked the door closed and started the engine, I glanced in the rearview mirror. A man’s head and shoulders rose up at the passenger-side window and I screamed.
• • •
I scrabbled at
the door to make sure it was locked, but then processed the man’s muffled voice saying something through the window.
“EJ, it’s me. Calm down.”
I unlocked the door. “Jay?” The relief rushing through me immediately turned to anger as he slid into the seat, wincing. “You scared me to death! What the hell are you doing hiding behind my car?”
I could barely make out his face in the near darkness, but his voice sounded weak when he said, “It’s complicated. Can we get out of here and I’ll tell you about it at my place? Can you drive me home?”
My faculties returning now that fear wasn’t freezing my brain, I shifted until I faced him straight-on. His right arm was wrapped around his midsection, clasping his side, and his face looked pinched and white. “Are you hurt?”
“Let’s just go, okay?”
“I’m taking you to a hospital,” I said, sliding down in my seat and restarting the engine.
A car entered the lot, its headlights glancing over the Miata, and Jay slumped down. “I don’t need a doctor,” he said in a low voice. “Just take me home. Please?” He gave me an address.
Against my better judgment, I put the car in gear and drove out of the lot. He gave me low-voiced directions and I navigated the quiet, mostly sleeping streets of Vernonville to his condo, a second-floor unit in a large complex built around a swimming pool. “You can park near that truck,” Jay said.
Without comment, I parked and opened the door, coming around to help Jay get out. He gave a strangled yelp when I caught his arm, and I saw dark streaks on his shirt. “Are you bleeding?” I asked, regretting not driving him to a doctor.
“Oh, undoubtedly.” He managed a weak grin.
The blood seemed to be seeping from along his rib cage, so I hurried to his unhurt side, slipped my arm around his waist, and draped his arm over my shoulders. “Let me help.”
Without arguing—which told me he was really in pain—he let me help him up the walk to the heavy wooden door. “Keys . . . pocket,” he gasped.
I fumbled in his jeans pocket for his keys, fighting down my embarrassment, and opened the door. I studied the flight of stairs that rose directly in front of us and gave him a look.
“I can do it.” He gritted his teeth and put a foot on the first step.
It took us several minutes and a lot of sweat, but we made it to the landing. The dome light attached to the ceiling illuminated the strain in Jay’s face. I quickly opened the door to his condo and guided him to the first couch I saw. “Sit.”
He sank onto the tan microfiber with a wince. Peeling his arm away from his midsection, he looked at the blood streaking his tee shirt. “Damn.”
“Let me see.” Without waiting for permission, I carefully rolled the shirt upward, exposing a furrow along his side, skin curling away, blood oozing. I recognized a bullet wound when I saw one—heaven knows I’d seen enough of them in the desert—and I gave him a sharp look. “Busy night?” I asked.
He ignored my sarcasm. “You could say that.” He tried to grin, but scrunched his eyes shut in pain.
I headed for the kitchen to fetch hot water, a bowl, scissors from a knife block, and a clean cloth, and then asked, “Bandages?”
“Bathroom. My bedroom,” Jay said through gritted teeth.
Normally, I’d have been curious, in an academic sort of way, of course, about his bedroom, but now I marched through it without a glance and opened the medicine chest in his beige-and-white-tiled bathroom. I found gauze pads, stretchy gauze wrap, first-aid tape, antibiotic ointment, alcohol, and a box of butterfly Steri-Strip wound closures. My, the man was either a walking accident or he was prepared for the kind of eventuality that faced us today. I washed my hands thoroughly, gathered up the first-aid paraphernalia, and carried it into the living room.
“Nurse Ratched, I presume?” Jay said.
“You clearly don’t want to go to a hospital and have them report the GSW,” I said, arranging the stuff on a glass coffee table, “so you’re going to have to put up with my efforts. I’ll have you know I was never even a Girl Scout, so this is amateur hour at its finest.” I cut his tee shirt off, knowing it would hurt too much for him to stretch his arms overhead and shrug it off. “I hope this wasn’t your favorite Guns N’ Roses shirt.”
“Concert. Nineteen ninety-three. Buenos Aires.”
I dabbed at the inches-long furrow with an alcohol-dampened pad and Jay caught his breath on a hiss. “You must have had some self-aid and buddy care training in the air force,” he said, clearly trying to distract himself from the pain.
“I did, of course,” I admitted.
“John Wayne would have a bullet to bite on in this situation.”
“And a bottle of whiskey,” I agreed, squeezing most of the tube of antibiotic cream directly onto the wound. I used my thumb and forefinger to bring the edges of his skin closer together and secured them every quarter inch with the butterfly bandages. “Sorry,” I said when he grunted.
“You’re doing great.” He lapsed into silence, breathing shallowly.
I worked as quickly as I could, padding the wound area with gauze and then securing the whole with strips of tape that stood out whitely against the tanned skin of his flat abdomen. “Lean forward.” When he complied, I fastened the tape around the back of his rib cage, noting a sprinkling of reddish hair and freckles on his back. For some reason, the sight of his bare back made me want to cry and I leaned away from him, saying briskly, “That should hold.”
Jay eyed me and for a moment I thought he spotted the almost-tears in my eyes. “Thanks,” he said, leaning back carefully against the sofa cushions.
“About that whiskey . . .”
“Pantry, top right shelf.” I left him in the living room and found the bottle of Jim Beam in the pantry. Pouring two fingers, I plopped a couple of ice cubes in and brought it back to the living room, along with a glass of water.
Jay reached for the bourbon, but I thrust the water glass into his hand, along with four ibuprofen pills. “Alcohol and painkillers don’t mix,” I said, taking a long sip of the Jim Beam. It burned its way down my throat and I tried to think if this was the first time I’d drunk whiskey at the crack of dawn.
Jay popped all four pills in his mouth at once and swallowed them with the entire glass of water. I set my whiskey on the table with a crack and collapsed into a barrel chair in the same tan microsuede as the couch. Glancing around for the first time, I noted lots of tan and glass. “This isn’t where you really live,” I announced. I didn’t know how I knew, I just did. The place reflected nothing of Jay.
“No,” he admitted with a lopsided smile.
“I think it’s time you tell me what’s going on,” I said, looking him straight in the eyes. His were hazel with long lashes that seemed almost black, in contrast to his dark auburn hair. “Something’s happening at my ma—at Fernglen—and I want to know what it is. Who do you work for?”
“I suppose the ‘I’m a small businessman trying to make a living selling cookies’ line isn’t going to work?”
He was stalling, trying to figure out how much to tell me. I shook my head. “Uh-uh.”
When he still hesitated, I got to my feet, suddenly angry. “Fine. If you can’t trust me, I’ll be going. Find someone else to play doctor the next time you get shot.”
“Wait, EJ.” Jay held out a hand. I remained standing, staring down at him. “I used to be with the FBI,” he finally said.
I sat again. “Used to be?”
He nodded, eyes fixed on me, gauging my reaction. “I found the bureaucracy . . . stifling. I’m not a suit-and-tie kind of guy.” He gestured to his jeans and the ruined rock concert tee shirt on the sofa.
I suddenly became aware that his chest was bare except for the bandage. “Are you cold?” I asked. “Do you want me to get you a shirt?”
He half smiled, like he realized his bare chest was distracting me. “I’m fine.”
“Fine.” I crossed my arms over my chest. “You were saying you got tossed out of the FBI . . .”
Chuckling, he said, “I resigned. Turned in my badge. There was this case . . . well, you don’t need the gory details. Suffice it to say that I didn’t see eye to eye with my superiors on the way it played out. A little boy died.” He rolled the water glass between his palms, gazing into it as if it contained the secrets of the universe.
“So, now you work for . . .?”
“Myself.” He said it sharply, then looked up at me and softened the word with a twist of his mouth. “I’m a consultant, a contractor.”
My brows drew together. “And what are you consulting on that requires you to pretend to be a cookie mogul, live in a prefurnished condo”—I gestured to the room—“and get shot? Somehow, I don’t think you’re consulting on management practices or software systems.”
“No. I’m a recovery agent. Things get lost or stolen and I find them.”
My brows soared. He said it as simply as if he’d claimed “I’m a mortgage broker” or “I paint houses.” I’d never met anyone who called himself a recovery agent. “What kinds of things? Who do you work for?”
“Insurance companies, usually.”
I thought about something my brother Clint had done a story on six months back. “Do you do kidnap recoveries? Are you working for companies who do business in South America, arranging ransom drops when their executives get kidnapped?”
He shook his head. “No, that’s a very specialized business. I have no interest in being involved in a kidnapping case ever again.”
The way he said it made me think his last FBI case, the one where a boy died, had involved a kidnapping. “Well, then, what?”
He drew a deep breath, then winced at the pressure on his wound. “It varies. This time around, it’s diamonds.”
“Diamonds? Engagement rings?” I waggled my fourth finger. “Harry Winston and tennis bracelets?”
I studied the grim set of his jaw. “You’re serious.”
“As a heart attack. My fee is ten percent of the recovery. Since the stones are worth somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty-five mil, my cut—pardon the pun—will be two point five mil. It doesn’t get much more serious than that.”
He seemed pleased with my reaction. “Exactly.”
Needing time to think, I took his empty water glass into the kitchen and refilled it, getting a glass for myself at the same time. I definitely didn’t need any more bourbon. Returning to the living room, I asked, “So what are you doing at Fernglen? And who tried to put a bullet into you?”
“I wish I knew the answer to that one,” Jay said, accepting the glass. His fingers brushed mine and I felt the slight contact all the way up my arm. I started to return to my chair, but Jay tugged on my wrist and said, “Sit here.”
Warily, I settled on the couch. He’d wedged a pillow behind his back and was propped against the armrest, one leg stretched out on the sofa and the other draping off the side.
“I should start at the beginning,” Jay resumed his story. “Three months ago, a consignment of diamonds went missing somewhere between Africa and Amsterdam. Jewel-grade stones ranging in size from half a carat to almost thirty carats. Of course, they won’t be that big when they’re cut.”
“Of course not,” I said mock-solemnly, like I knew anything about diamonds.
“The corporation who owned them—”
“De Beers?” Okay, so I knew that much about diamonds.
“Confidentiality is important to my clients,” Jay said. “Anyway, the company wants their diamonds back. They want them retrieved discreetly, with no fanfare. If word hit the street about the theft, it could play havoc with the price of diamonds on the international market and it might make other thieves take a shot at heisting more of my client’s merchandise.”
I was too tired to really take in what he was telling me. I returned to the point that most interested me. “So why are you at Fernglen?”
Stretching, he set his foot on my thigh and let it rest there. There was something incredibly intimate in the gesture and it unsettled me. My hand would naturally have fallen to his ankle, but I felt self-conscious about that and instead laid my arm across the sofa back.
“An informant,” Jay said. “My client learned the diamonds had been smuggled into the U.S. and that some of them had been cut, set, and sold. Before she was killed—”
I gasped and Jay nodded grimly. “Traffic ‘accident.’ Before she was killed, she pointed us at Fernglen. You know the rest. I arranged to take over the Lola’s so I could observe the comings and goings at the mall, see if I could figure out who was distributing the diamonds. I thought at first that they must be going through one of the jewelry stores—”
Fernglen had three jewelry stores—one chain store that had been there for years, and two independents, one of which had opened since I’d been at the mall.
“—but now I’m not sure. There’re too many diamonds to funnel them all through a single jewelry store, and several of them, rare colored stones, are too distinctive to sell on the open market anyway.”
My head was whirling, a combination of Jay’s closeness, his story, and my tiredness. “The gunshot wound?”
“You know I’ve been keeping track of some activity in the garage.”
I nodded. I’d more than once stumbled over Jay lurking in the garage at odd hours.
“I was tailing the new partner at Yalenian & Son Jewelers. His bona fides don’t quite check out. Anyway, after dinner in Richmond, he drove all the way back here and turned into the garage. I couldn’t risk him making me, so I left my car at the Olympus construction site and came over on foot. By the time I got to the garage, he had disappeared. I took the stairs to the second level and as I came through the door, someone shot at me.”
“Did you see anything? Get a description?” The cop in me took over.
He shook his head, disgusted with himself. “I never even knew he was there until the gun fired. I dove back through the stairwell door and heard a car take off.”
I wondered if it was the van I had seen on the camera. If so, we might be able to determine make and model. I told Jay that and he perked up. “Let’s take a look tomorrow. Anyway, I was losing blood and knew I wouldn’t be able to drive myself home, couldn’t risk going to the hospital and having the police blow my cover by getting all excited about a GSW, and I’d seen your car in the lot when I arrived, so I hid behind it and waited, hoping you weren’t going to work a double shift.” He grinned weakly.