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

Belatedly it occurred to me that the detectives had already questioned all my employees, so Lynn should have already told them her married-man theory. In that case, had Wyatt been trying to spare my feelings by saying he'd have it checked out? Oh, that was galling.

I called Lynn back. "What you said about Nicole seeing married men, did you tell that to the police?"

"Well, no," she admitted. "For one thing, I don't know anything; I'm just saying she's the type. Actually, what the detective asked was if I knew who she had been seeing, romantically speaking, and I said no, because I don't. He didn't chat and say, hey, was she likely to do this or this, you know? But I was thinking about it later, and that's when it hit me that she was always flirting with the married guys at Great Bods, you know, and while she came on to every man breathing, there was still something about the way she went after the married ones. You saw her in action; you know what I'm talking about."

I knew exactly. Nicole had been forever touching, whether it was to ostensibly straighten a collar or a pat on the arm or an arm around the waist as she walked beside a guy-touching. Men aren't stupid; they knew exactly what she was offering. The smart ones had maybe been flattered, but they hadn't been hooked. The ones who weren't so smart, or who were sleazeballs, had responded, so you just knew there was contact going on away from Great Bods. Once she bagged a guy, though, Nicole had always been ready to move on.

"Did you notice any one guy in particular who paid a lot of attention to her?" I asked Lynn because at Great Bods I was tied up doing office work a lot, so she saw more than I did. "It would also be great if you knew what color car he drives."

"Let me think. No one recently, because it's been mostly our regulars and they were wise to her. A couple of months ago I did spot Nicole coming out of the men's bathroom, looking so smug I just wanted to bitch-slap her, and a few minutes later one of the guys came out, so I figure they were getting it on in the john."

"Why didn't you tell me?" I shrieked. "I'd have tossed her ass out right then!"

"You could do that? For doing it in the john?"

"She was in the men's john. I'm surprised they didn't get caught."

"I doubt she would have cared. They were probably in a stall. Maybe she was giving him a blow job, but that wasn't her style, either. At a guess, I'd say she did all the taking and none of the giving."

"Do you remember the man's name?"

"Not offhand. He didn't come often, and I don't think he's been in at all since then. He wasn't one of the regulars; he paid for a month and worked out a couple of times, then didn't renew. I'd recognize his name if I saw it, though. Do you keep a separate file on the ones who didn't renew?"

"Not a paper one. He'd be in the computer, though. Do you have any plans for the rest of the day? I'm going to put a call in to the cops"-my cop, specifically-"and they might want you to meet them at Great Bods to go through the computer files."

"No, I'll be around. If I do happen to be out, you can catch me on the cell phone."

"Okay. I'll get back to you."

"That sounded interesting," Mrs. Bloodsworth said, her green eyes bright with interest. She didn't bother to pretend that she hadn't been eavesdropping. After all, I was sitting in the same room with her.

"I hope so. Now, if Wyatt just won't hang up on me again-"

"He hung up on you?" Now the green eyes fired. "I taught him better manners than that. Let me drop a little word in his ear-"

"Oh, no, don't do that. Come to think of it, it would be best if I didn't call him again. I'll just call Detective MacInnes." I found the detective's card, and dialed the number on it.

When he answered, I said cheerfully, "Hello, this is Blair Mallory-"

"Uh-wait just a minute, Ms. Mallory, and I'll get the lieutenant-"

"Oh, there's no need. I'll just talk to you. The thing is, I was just now talking to my assistant manager, Lynn Hill, about her taking over for me at Great Bods when it reopens tomorrow-it is reopening, isn't it? You have all of that ugly yellow tape down?"

"Uh-let me get back to you on that-"

"Never mind. I'll find out about that later. Anyway, Lynn is the one who mentioned that she thought Nicole had a sort of thing for married men. You know-the challenge, taking something away from another woman. Lynn said she didn't say anything about that to the detective who interviewed her because she didn't think of it at the time, but later on she was running things through her mind and thinks it's very likely, because of the way Nicole acted."

"Uh-" He tried to interrupt again, but I just plowed right over him.

"Lynn and I were talking about possibles, and she said a couple of months ago she caught Nicole and this guy in the men's john doing, well, each other. She can't remember the man's name, because he only came to Great Bods a couple of times and hasn't been back, but she's sure she'll recognize the name when she sees it, and if you want, she can meet you over at Great Bods and she'll go through the computer files of the members who didn't renew. Are you following this?"

"Yeah," he said, sounding much more involved and with me now.

"Good. It's a place to start. That particular guy may not pan out, but knowing she liked married men puts a different spin on things, doesn't it?"

"Sure does." Now he sounded almost cheerful.

"Just in case you don't have Lynn's number handy, here it is." I rattled it off. "She's waiting to hear from you. And if she isn't at home, here's her cell number." Rattled off another one. Then I chirped, "Have a nice day, Detective," and hung up after he mumbled an automatic reply.

"I'm impressed," Mrs. Bloodsworth said, grinning from ear to ear. "You're doing a good imitation of a ditzy blond, but you're spewing out information so fast he probably couldn't write it all down."

"Then he'll call back," I said airily. "Or someone will."

Someone did, of course, within about five minutes. He was royally pissed, too. "If you have information about the case, you call me, not one of my men," he said very tersely.

"Are you the same man who has hung up on me twice now? I can't imagine ever calling you again, about anything."

Silence as deep as the Grand Canyon fell between us. Then he muttered, "Oh, shit," in the tone of a man who has just realized he's gonna have to suck it up and apologize, because, no doubt about it, he'd been rude. Not only that, he knew that I was with the mother who had raised him to have better manners than that. This was just one teeny little battle, but he'd been outflanked and I got a great deal of satisfaction out of it.

Finally he heaved a sigh. "I'm sorry. I'll never hang up on you again. I promise."

"Apology accepted," I said briskly. "Now, will Lynn be able to open Great Bods tomorrow?" There's no sense in beating a horse to death, now is there? I'd won, so I'd be an adult and move on.

"I'm ninety percent certain she will."

"Good. Is my car still sitting in front of it?"

"No. I got your keys out of your bag and had it moved to your condo this morning. It's safe and sound."

"When did you get my keys?" I asked curiously, because I hadn't seen him do it.

"Last night. You were already sound asleep."

"I'm guessing everything was all right at my house, no windows shot out or anything?"

"The patrolman checked, said everything was still locked up, the windows were locked, no bullet holes that he could see."

"Did he climb the fence and check the French doors in back?"

"He said he checked all the doors. Let me buzz him and ask about that particular door." He left the phone, and came back a minute later. "Simmons said he didn't have to climb the fence; he just opened the gate and walked in."

A chill ran down my spine. "I always keep my gate locked." My fingers tightened on the phone. "I know it was locked."

"Shit. I'll get someone back out there right now. You sit tight."

"Like I could do anything else," I said wryly. We both very politely said good-bye, so neither could accuse the other of hanging up on anyone; then I reported the latest happening to Mrs. Bloodsworth.

That was when I remembered Siana. She was supposed to go to my place today and pack clothes for me. What if by some awful coincidence she was at my house when whoever unlocked my gate-which could only be unlocked from the inside-was there? Siana was blond. She was a little taller than I was, but Nicole's killer wouldn't know that. She had her own set of keys to the place, in case I lost mine.

She could have gone at any time to get my clothes: first thing this morning, or at lunch, or she might wait until she was finished with work for the day-but I didn't think she would wait that long, because she had to meet Wyatt somewhere to give the bag to him and sometimes she had to work until eight, nine o'clock at night.

"What's wrong?" Mrs. Bloodsworth asked, watching my face.

"My sister," I said in a faint tone. "She was supposed to pack a bag for me today and give it to Wyatt. He didn't mention it, so she might have been-"

She might have been mistaken for me. Oh, dear God.

Praying harder than I'd ever prayed in my life, I dialed Wyatt again. He sounded wary when he answered. "Siana was supposed to be at my house getting my clothes," I said rapidly. "Have you heard from her today?"

"Calm down," he said, his tone switching to soothing. "She's fine. She brought your bag over first thing this morning."

"Thank God. Oh, thank God." Tears burned my eyes. "I just realized… She's blond; she's about my size; the killer wouldn't know the difference between us." I was appalled that I hadn't thought of that before, and judging from the muttered curse I heard, our resemblance hadn't registered with Wyatt, either, at least not in that context. People who knew us would never get us mixed up, because we don't favor each other all that strongly, but on the surface, to the casual observer…

Because Wyatt was a cop, he asked, "Could Siana have opened your gate?"

I wiped the tears away. "I'll call and ask her, but I can't imagine any reason why she would."

"I'll call. I have more questions I need to ask her. I have a question for you, too: Is your security system set?"

I opened my mouth to automatically say, "Yes, of course," but abruptly shut it as I remembered the last time I'd been at home, on Friday, waiting for the rental car company to come pick me up. I'd waited at the door, and when the man drove up, I had bolted. I had a distinct memory of locking the door, but none at all of setting the alarm.

"It wasn't," I finally said. "Unless Siana set it this morning when she left. She has the code."

"All right. I'll handle things here. Stay calm, and with any luck I'll pick you up in a couple of hours. Okay?"

"Okay." I was grateful he hadn't lectured me about forgetting to set the security alarm. What on earth had I been thinking? Oh, yeah: the beach. I'd been in a hurry to get away.

The killer could have gotten in at any time during the weekend, and made himself comfortable while he waited for me to come home. Only, he hadn't. Maybe he'd staked out my place and, when my car was never there, decided I must be staying with someone. But if he'd gone back to Great Bods, he would have seen my car and then maybe figured that was the best place to wait for me, because I was sure to collect my car.

That plan had worked, up to a point; it was only by chance that I was still alive. What would he have done next? No, wait-he might have thought the plan had worked yesterday evening, because I'd hit the ground and obviously he hadn't hung around to check things out. He must have thought he'd killed me, until the news at ten told him otherwise-or maybe not even then. The hospital didn't give out condition statements the way it used to. The police would have held their cards close to their chests last night, until Wyatt had me stuffed somewhere safe-like his bed was safe, but whatever. The morning news, though, would probably have said I was treated at the hospital and released.

So what would be his next move? Maybe he was in my house now, waiting for me. Maybe he'd just been checking things out, looking for a way to get inside. The French doors were the best bet, and the privacy fence would give him concealment while he jimmied them open, or whatever.

That would be stupid of him, though. The security company's sign was plainly posted on my front window. He wouldn't have any way of telling whether or not the system was on, so he wouldn't chance it-not if he had a brain in his head.

I jerked out of my thoughts when Mrs. Bloodsworth finally got my attention, anxiously asking if Siana was all right. "She's fine," I said, and wiped the last tear away. "She packed my clothes early this morning, and gave the bag to Wyatt. He's calling her to see if she turned on the security system."

The odds were she had. Siana wouldn't have left my house unguarded, even if the system had been off when she arrived. So, since no alarm had gone off, my home hadn't been invaded. No killer waited there. He might have jumped the fence and tried to look in the French doors, but I had pulled the curtains closed over them and he wouldn't have been able to see a thing. Everything was all right.

I breathed a huge, mental sigh of relief.

"There's no telling what time Wyatt will get here," Mrs. Bloodsworth said. "I'm going to go ahead and start supper for us. If he doesn't make it in time to eat with us, I'll just keep things warm for him."

"Is there anything I can do to help?" I asked, hoping there was, because it was getting kind of old just sitting around all day and letting someone wait on me.

"One-handed?" she asked, and laughed. "Other than setting the table, I can't think of a thing. Just come into the kitchen and keep me company. I don't get to cook all that often now, with just me in the house. There's no point, is there? I'll eat a sandwich for supper, and sometimes in the winter I'll open a can of soup, but food's pretty boring if you don't have company."

I followed her into the kitchen, and took a seat at the table. There was a formal dining room, of course, all true Victorians had them, but you could tell most of the Bloodsworth meals had been eaten at this very table. "You sound a little bored. Have you thought about rejoining Great Bods? We have some great new programs."

"I've thought about it, but you know how it is. Thinking about something and actually getting around to doing it are two different things. After my bicycle accident, I'm afraid I became a bit of a slug."

"Who took care of you when you were hurt?"

"My daughter, Lisa. It was misery. The collarbone was bad enough, but the ribs-that was agony. I couldn't move without hurting, and I couldn't find a comfortable position, so I was constantly moving. My left arm is still weak, but I've been exercising it and I'm almost back up to normal. Six months! It's ridiculous to take that long to recover, but I suppose that shows my age."

I snorted. It wasn't an elegant sound, but it got my point across. "I've broken a collarbone, too, when I was on the high school cheerleading squad. I had to work hard to get back in shape for the next year. It's a good thing the squad didn't do pyramids and flying stunts for the basketball games, or I couldn't have managed. Six months sounds like a good recovery time to me."

She smiled. "But I'm not doing handstands, am I? You were."

"Not then, I wasn't. I couldn't; my shoulder just wouldn't hold up."

"Can you still do a handstand?"

"Sure. And a backflip, cartwheel, splits. I try to work on my gymnastics at least twice a week."

"Could you teach me how to do a handstand?"

"I don't see why not. It's balance and strength, and practice. You need to do some light weight-lifting to get your arm and shoulder stronger, though, before you start. The last thing you need is to fall and break something else."

"Agreed," she said fervently.

"I can do a one-handed handstand," I said, bragging a little.

"You can?" She turned from the stove and stared at my injured arm, wrapped in the blue-shawl sling. "Not now, you can't."

"I probably can, because I use my right arm, since it's strongest and because I'm right-handed. I always tuck my left arm behind my back, anyway, so it won't wave around and upset my balance."

Well, the upshot of that conversation was that by the time the pork chops, green beans, mashed potatoes, and biscuits were finished, we were both dying to see if I could manage the handstand. Mrs. Bloodsworth kept saying no, I shouldn't take the chance of injuring myself even more, since the stitches were new and I'd lost blood, things like that, but I pointed out that in a handstand what blood I had left would be rushing to my head, so I wasn't likely to faint.

"But you're weak."

"I don't feel weak. I was shaky last night, just a little shaky this morning, and now I feel fine." To prove it, of course, then I had to do the handstand.

She fussed around me like she wanted to stop me but didn't know how, and at the same time I could tell she was really interested. We took the sling off my left arm, and though I could move the arm a little today, I still didn't have a lot of range, so she moved it for me and tucked it behind my back. Then, in a stroke of genius, she tied the shawl around my hips and over the arm to keep it in position.

I got on the other side of the table, away from the stove and in the wide entry into the dining room, so there was plenty of space. I bent over, placed my hand on the floor with my elbow braced against my right knee, centered my gravity over my arm, and slowly slowly slowly began to curl, lifting my feet off the ground.

So that's what Wyatt saw when he came in the back door. We'd been so engrossed we hadn't heard the car in the driveway.

"Holy shit!" he said, the words exploding out of him and making his mother and me both jump.

That wasn't a good thing, because it ruined my balance. I began to topple, Mrs. Bloodsworth grabbed for me, and Wyatt vaulted the table. Somehow he caught my legs, keeping me from tipping over, then wrapped a brawny arm around my waist and gently flipped me upright.

There was nothing gentle about his tongue, though. "What in hell do you think you're doing?" he roared at me, his face dark with temper, then turned to Mrs. Bloodsworth. "Mother, you're supposed to stop her from doing something stupid, not help her!"

"I was just showing-" I began.

"I saw what you were 'just' doing! For God's sake, Blair, you were shot just twenty-four hours ago! You lost a lot of blood! Tell me how, under those conditions, doing a handstand is even remotely reasonable?"

"Since I did it, I'd say it was within the realm of possibility. If you hadn't startled me, I'd have been just fine." My tone was remarkably mild, because we had frightened him. I understood. I patted his arm. "Everything's okay. Why don't you just sit down and I'll get you something to drink. Iced tea? Milk?"

"You'll be okay," his mother said soothingly. "I know you had a scare, but really, we had everything under control."

"Under control? She-you…" He stopped sputtering and shook his head. "She isn't any safer here than she would be at home. A broken neck can kill her just as dead as a bullet can. That's it. I'm going to have to handcuff her to the vanity in the bathroom, and leave her at my house all day."