Well, we are now at that magic twenty percent sample size (assuming my final word count comes out where I think it should. I'm going to continue to post chapters because it's keeping me on track, and from the blog hits, ya'll are enjoying it. The writing and editing are just going slower than I'd like because we are packing to move. So the actual novel won't be released until some time after August 5th (i.e. Moving Day). But once the novel goes on sale, count on all chapters after this one disappearing from the blog due to contractual obligations with Amazon, Apple, etc.
P.S. Any feedback is appreciated!
Too many question tumbled through Alex’s mind as he drove back to Phil’s store. The top of the list—what the hell was the item Beatrice Madison tried to sell, and why was it worth killing for?
“We need to check your files.”
“My files?” Oncoming headlights flashed across her face. “Jane said she’d get them for you, didn’t she?”
Alex chuckled. “It’s not her fault she forgot. She was a little thrown off when she realized I was a vampire.”
Phillippa sighed. “She probably planned to make copies for you in the morning.”
Out cold, Kiki didn’t budge when he pulled into the parking lot and braked to a stop behind the shop. Phil reached for the dog, and Alex laid a hand over hers. Electricity sparked, not her powers but the old-fashioned attraction between a man and a woman. She licked her upper lip.
As much as he wanted to accept the invitation, he didn’t dare. “Let her sleep. I doubt if she has for the last couple of days.” Reluctantly, he slid his hand from hers at her acknowledgement.
They climbed out of the truck and gently shut their respective doors. He followed Phil to the back door and helped her push the steel frame they’d bent to secure the building out of the way.
She flipped on the backroom lights and headed for her office. He walked behind, doing his best not to watch the sway of her hips. It didn’t matter what she wore. Phil made anything look good.
He leaned against the doorway while she slid onto her leather desk chair and started rifling through her files. “Since you’ll be busy with the insurance company this morning, why don’t I take Kiki back to my place for the day?”
Phil glanced up with a wry smile on her face. “And how are you going to walk her?” He shrugged. “She can use newspapers on my patio.”
She laughed, a low melodious sound he remembered far too well. “Newspapers? Really, Mr. Computers-Are-The-Wave-Of-The-Future?”
He grinned back. “They come in handy. Like for when I need to baby-sit a Phoenician divine dog.”
Instead of laughing some more or shooting a quip, she frowned. Her finger flew over the folders in the drawer a second time. Then she rose and shuffled through an entire five-drawer cabinet.
Alex straightened. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s not here.” Phil turned and started going through the plastic paperwork trays on her desk.
“Mrs. Madison’s file?”
“No! Your brains, cowboy!” She slammed down the files she held. Loose sheets flew into the air and fluttered to the carpet. “Beatrice’s file is gone.”
The overhead lights flickered.
“You need to calm down right now.”
If Phillippa were her cousin Medusa, he’d be stone right now from the look she gave him. But the lights steadied and brightened.
Tell her to take off her t-shirt, his second brain whispered.
Instead, Alex said, “But you have the main inventory that lists the items, right?”
“Yeah.” She swiveled around and hit the power switch on her computer. “I scanned in the paper work as well. And Duncan set up the backup program that dumps everything into an Augustine server.”
“You’re welcome,” he drawled.
She looked up at him. “What?”
“He made me set up your system because I let Tiffany drink too much soda pop one night when she was eight.”
Phil covered her mouth, but he could see the light dancing in her eyes. “That was twelve years ago.”
“Yeah, and my boss, being a stereotypical Scorpio, carries grudges for a lifetime. And since he’s a vampire…”
She gave up trying to hide her humor and laughed outright. “Considering I had to take a grumpy, sleep-deprived third grader to school the next day, you’re not getting any sympathy from me.”
As much as he wanted to stay with Phil, a familiar tightening of his skin told him it was time to go home. Dawn came too damn early in June. “You going to be okay here?”
That question earned him a reproving look. “I think I can manage.”
“Then I’ll go home and see what Tiffany’s come up with.” Except his feet didn’t want to take that first step out of Phil’s office.
She deliberately stared at her computer screen while she clicked on the necessary documents. “Alex, you’ve got forty-five minutes to beat the sun home. I really don’t want to explain to Caesar why he lost another enforcer.”
“Give me a call if something else happens.”
This time she turned to face him. “I will. Now, go.”
Alex pivoted on his boot heels and head out the back door. For only the second time in one hundred-twenty-five years, he regretted his Turn.
* * *
Phil made a couple of calls. The nymphs spread the message, and within an hour, all ten of them were at the store, shoveling debris and evaluating the damage to the merchandise. The only person not answering her phone was Jane. Both her home phone and her cell kept rolling over to voice mail.
Surprisingly, Sifuentes sent a deputy out with the official report and copies of the photos his team had taken. Both the insurance adjustor and her contractor arrived by nine a.m. Phil tried to stay out of the way as the two of them did their jobs. She gratefully accepted the large cup of coffee Melissa handed her.
“Should I try Jane again?” Worry lay in the nymph’s amber eyes.
Phil shook her head. “No, she was here late last night dealing with the police and this mess. She probably turned off her phones and forgot to set her alarm clock.” Except she couldn’t shake her own concern. One person had already died over a fake artifact.
Was the tumi a fake? Alex seemed sure there was more to the object than what the assayer reported.
“Humans,” Melissa murmured, disapproval in her tone. “They would be so much healthier if they simply followed Apollo’s chariot.”
The adjustor walked over to them, and the nymph darted away to distribute tea and juice to her compatriots. He rubbed the bald spot at the back of his head. “I’ve got good news and bad news, Ms. Mann.”
She gave him a rueful smile. “You’ll pay the claim, but you’re dropping my policy.”
He laid his clipboard on the solid mahogany counter, one of the few pieces in the store that was intact. “Your agent already spoke with you.”
“You’ve got to admit that two incidences of vandalism in less than six months is an issue. Especially when we’re dealing with some high dollar items.”
A sad laugh trilled in her throat. Maybe this was the Moirai’s hint for her to leave Los Angeles sooner rather than later. “I’m all too aware of the issue. I thought moving outside of the city proper would alleviate your company’s concerns.”
She scanned the room. In a corner, Melissa flirted with the contractor as she handed him a steaming cup. “And provide less of a target.”
The adjustor leaned against the counter. “These girls will be out of a job if you shut down your business, won’t they?”
“Yes.” The problem was more than the employment. It was giving the nymphs a sense of purpose in the twenty-first century, in a world that no longer believed in them, much less honored them. Like Duncan asking her to help raise Tiffany had given her a sense of purpose.
“Damn,” the adjustor muttered. “It’ll be next to impossible for them to find something in this economy. My son lost his job two years ago, and still can’t find anything above minimum wage. The bank foreclosed on the house just after my daughter-in-law had my grandson.” Determination filled the man’s face. “Let me talk to my regional director.” He held up a hand. “I can’t guarantee anything, Ms. Mann. If I get her to agree and there’s another claim…”
“I understand.” Phillippa stuck out her hand. “I’d appreciate whatever you can do.” She glanced over at the nymphs. “For their sakes.”
Once the contractor delivered his estimate and paperwork was signed, copied and traded between him, the adjustor and Phillippa, both men left. But not before the contractor promised to return at seven a.m. tomorrow with a team to install the new doors and windows.
All ten of the nymphs volunteered to come to the store at dawn to meet the contractor, though Melissa looked more peeved at the extra volunteers than excited. Phillippa distracted the potential nymph fight over the attention of mortal men by promising the girls they could decide on the new colors for the interior once they removed the last of the debris.
She handed the swatch book to Melissa. “Can you keep everyone on track? I’m going to run over to Jane’s to check on her.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Melissa saluted her. If it were anyone else, Phillippa would have smacked them for mocking her. From the nymph, the gesture was sincere.
The drive to Jane’s apartment drew Phil’s nerves taunt. She couldn’t shake the feeling that something was terribly wrong. This wasn’t like Jane. The girl was so damn efficient and punctual.
Phillippa parked her Mustang and jogged up the flight of stairs. She hammered on the door. No one answered. She scanned the area.
Jane didn’t live in the best of neighborhoods, but the people seemed to be good folks the couple of times Phillippa had visited here. A few children played in the pool under the watchful eye of two older women.
“Yo, gringa, whachoo want?” A middle-aged man approached along the open walkway. His mustache was thick and full, but carried the same salt-and-pepper as his hair. His light blue workshirt was embroidered with “P. Rodriguez, Manager.”
Phillippa switched to Spanish. “I’m Phillippa Mann, Jane Chevrette’s employer. She didn’t come to work today and isn’t answering her phone. I came to check on her.”
“Miss Jane?” Rodriguez shook his head. “Miss Jane hasn’t been around in two weeks.”
“What are you talking about?” It would be understandable if Jane had met somebody, but she hadn’t mentioned dating anyone.
“No one’s seen Miss Jane in a couple of weeks. In fact, the postman asked me yesterday if I had a forwarding address for her because her box was full.” He shrugged. “But she hasn’t turned in her notice and her rent’s paid through the month.”
The little worm of worry became a full-blown leviathan. Jane had been at the shop last night. She would have been the first one at the store this morning. “Would you please unlock her door for me?”
The manager gave her a measured look. “Maybe we should call the police.”
Phillippa smiled. “If she’s in there and okay, then you can blame everything on me. But if she’s sick…”
Rodriguez pulled the key ring from his belt. “You’re right. Miss Jane doesn’t cause any trouble.” He slid what looked like a master key into the lock and twisted.
The stench of rotten meat hit Phillippa as soon as Rodriguez popped open the door. She entered, the manager right behind her. “Jane?”
“Mother in heaven, what is that smell?” Rodriguez muttered.
Silence. Nothing was out of place in the tiny living room, but the odor. Phillippa arrowed for the kitchenette, the source of the Gaea-awful smell, and yanked open the refrigerator door.
Rodriguez whirled away at the sight that greeted them and heaved the contents of his stomach across the living room carpet.
“Oh, Jane,” Phillippa whispered. She closed the door, pulled her cell phone out of her pocket and punched a number she really shouldn’t have memorized.
Alex answered on the first ring. “What’s up, Phil?”
She swallowed the bile at the back of her throat. “I need a daytime enforcer at Jane’s apartment.” She could hear the scratch of a pencil on paper as she gave him the address. “And I need you to contact Sifuentes.”
“Sweet, Jesus,” he muttered. “Is Jane…?”
Phillippa’s fingers squeezed the case of her smart phone until the plastic squealed. “Somebody cut her up and shoved the parts into her refrigerator at least a week ago. Whoever was at my store last night was not Jane Chevrette.”