Truth or consequences, p.6

Truth or Consequences, page 6

 

Truth or Consequences
 



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  “The same way Kendo does for you.”

  There she went again with the startling insight. The back of his neck itched with the freaky feeling that she could read his mind. Which was whacked. But he felt exposed and vulnerable. His private fears and weaknesses were not up for grabs.

  They stepped inside, and he closed the door behind them. The apartment was a one-room studio, the inside as cramped and care-worn as the outside. She’d propped the windows open a few inches, not wise in the crime-riddled neighborhood, but heat permeated the room. Worn green shag carpet was scrubbed scrupulously clean, as were the dingy walls.

  Zoe had draped colorful scarves above stained vinyl shades at the windows. Tropical-island prints from a calendar were artfully arranged on the walls. Leafy plants in hand-painted pots added freshness. With a few inexpensive, imaginative touches, she’d transformed the claustrophobic, dreary place into a bright, cozy and welcoming cocoon.

  Obviously, she didn’t have many visitors. The one seat was a red canvas director’s chair perched in front of a desk made from a door propped on filing cabinets. A small portable TV and an up-to-the-minute computer system sat on the desktop. She needed a good unit for research, of course, but he’d bet his trusty Glock pistol she’d somehow finagled it for a bargain price. A twin mattress encased in bright yellow linens and topped by a turquoise throw was tucked into the corner on the floor. Aidan glanced around, unsure where to put the shaky woman.

  “The bed is fine,” she murmured, again reading his mind.

  He led her to the mattress, and gently lowered her.

  She sighed and rubbed her forehead. “Thanks.”

  The ugliest cat he’d ever seen lounged in the windowsill above her. The mud-colored, battle-scarred feline with one ragged ear stretched, yawned and then jumped down. Purring, he kneaded Zoe’s lap. She patted the animal. “Aidan, meet Evander. Evander, Aidan.”

  Aidan laughed. A dangerous habit he seemed to be unable to control in her presence. He squatted and scratched the cat under the chin. “You named your cat after the guy who got his ear chomped by Mike Tyson?”

  “Well, if the gnawed appendage fits…”

  Their eyes met in mutual amusement. A connection sparked. A moment of shared understanding that felt eerily as if they’d forged a tentative bond. Warmth curled around his heart, and heat coiled in his belly. As if she instinctively recognized his response, Zoe’s eyes widened and her breathing accelerated.

  Aidan surged to his feet, severing the link. The temperature was much too hot. He switched on a small fan near the head of the bed, the whir overly loud in the sudden silence. He needed to feed Zoe and get the hell out of Dodge. Stay the hell out of Dodge. Dodge was a damn scary place.

  Next stop, Over-the-Cliff City.

  “What can I fix you to eat?” He strode to the mini fridge across the room. Four cupboards, a sink, and an inexpensive microwave, toaster and double hotplate completed the “kitchen.”

  “Peanut butter on crackers and a glass of milk, please.”

  Her tiny fridge held half a dozen eggs, a quart of milk, a package of hotdogs and several seasonal fruits. She’d mentioned that her father wasn’t in the picture, so her mother would have had it hard. Poverty had probably been status quo all Zoe’s life. That was another reason he wasn’t about to leave a woman behind to raise his children. The emotional strain was traumatic enough, but the additional financial burden made it untenable. He would not be doing Zoe any favors by getting involved with her.

  He opened a cupboard door. The meager contents made Mother Hubbard’s pantry look like Ivana Trump’s penthouse kitchen. Zoe had two plates, two glasses, two coffee cups and two sets of flat-ware. Another indication she never had company. She was alone too much.

  He found a box of crackers and arranged some on a plate. Zoe had said she was saving to have her mother moved from a San Francisco care center to Riverside. Long-term care was exorbitant enough without incurring extra moving expenses. Zoe obviously got by on very little.

  Hot, prickling shame crept over his skin. He’d thought her vain. He’d thought she stayed thin purposely, because TV cameras added ten pounds. The horrible truth was she didn’t have enough to eat. His hands shook as he spread peanut butter on crackers and then poured milk. Rage scoured his insides like acid. He’d been on enough domestic calls to know that in the wealthiest country in the world people went to bed hungry every night.

  The fact that he gave a generous monthly donation to the Riverside Food Bank didn’t take away the sting of knowing Zoe went to bed hungry.

  She needed someone to look after her. But it couldn’t be him. He couldn’t give her the stability she needed. Couldn’t make long-term promises. The battle raging inside him made his stomach cramp. He’d read about an ancient form of torture where a man’s arms and legs were bound to four horses and then the horses were driven in opposite directions, tearing the man apart. He could relate. He carried the plate of crackers over and handed it and the glass of milk to her.

  “Thanks.” She patted the mattress beside her. “Please, sit. Have some.”

  He had to give her credit, you’d never know she had it rough. She might feel rocky on the inside, but she presented an upbeat, smiling face to the world. He knew from personal experience it required a buttload of courage to stay positive and fight your way back to your feet when life repeatedly slammed you to the mat.

  Even if he could bring himself to take her food, the lump in his throat would choke him if he tried to eat. “No thanks. If you’re okay now, I have to go.”

  Her lashes didn’t lower quite fast enough to hide the hurt swimming in her eyes. Obviously, she thought he found either the company or the environment distasteful. “I’ll be fine. I’m feeling better already, and I’m sure eating will help.” Her voice wavered, and she cleared her throat. “Thank you for the ride home and the room service.”

  Pain punched into his chest. Dammit, he hadn’t meant to hurt her feelings. “No problem. I’d stay, but I’ve got family stuff to do.” Even if he didn’t, he’d be out of here, PDQ. The environment didn’t bother him. The company did. He’d suddenly discovered he liked it—far too much. “Sure you’re all right?”

  “Yup. See you around the incident sites, SWAT.”

  “Is that a promise or a threat, Brenda Starr?” Though he managed to tease her, his aching heart turned to lead and sank in his chest as he strode outside.

  A little over an hour later, Zoe was sorting through a stack of cracked dinner plates inside a huge Dumpster parked behind an office complex. The contents came from a liquidated restaurant supply company. Until very recently—like last week—the company had been owned by another corporation headed by Tony DiMarco.

  After Aidan had departed and she’d eaten, she’d shaken off the lingering taint of melancholy. Of course he hadn’t been able to stay. His brother was getting married tonight. He hadn’t run out like his Jockeys were on fire because of the oppressive heat and cramped dinginess of her ramshackle apartment. Or because he couldn’t stand to be around her. Probably.

  She’d determinedly put him out of her mind, parked herself in front of her computer and continued the DiMarco investigation. A short time later, she hit the jackpot with a real estate sale. The office building’s name had struck a chord. Sure enough, it was on her compiled inventory of DiMarco’s suspected properties.

  Now, she wiped a bead of perspiration from her forehead and dug deeper. As far as Dumpsters went, this one wasn’t horrendous. Mostly damaged restaurant supplies and office furniture. She’d waded in much more fragrant and colorful garbage for evidence. No stale Chinese takeout or greasy pizza crusts this time. Or holey undergarments. And since she’d propped up one of the Dumpster’s massively heavy lids against the building’s wall, it wasn’t dark. She’d brought a penlight, just in case, but hadn’t needed it. She shuddered. Thank heaven for small favors.

  Zoe examined an unopened package of coffee stirrers. Seemed like the person who had cleaned o
ut the building had tossed stuff willy-nilly. She envied anyone financially secure enough to throw away brand-new merchandise. Who was covertly liquidating DiMarco’s assets? More importantly, where was the money going? She was on the right track, could feel it in her bones. The restaurant supply house was near the top of the list—many of DiMarco’s other suspected corporations branched out from it. She didn’t have much time left before all his holdings were converted to cash and the trail went cold.

  Proving DiMarco’s security company owned all the others was the first and most difficult step. She was attempting to unravel the tangled web. If purchase dates and amounts corresponded even remotely with the robberies, she might figure out the path taken to launder the stolen money. Not to mention DiMarco would have a hard time explaining how he’d paid cash for more than two dozen businesses.

  She relocated a stack of brand-new linen tablecloths. Throw it out and write it off seemed to be the ongoing philosophy. Maybe she’d salvage a few; it would be a shame to waste them. Speaking of administrative waste, the “official” DiMarco investigation would be hampered by legal channels and red tape. Zoe was under no such restrictions. A step at a time, she would link DiMarco to the corporations, and the corporations to the robberies…the likeliest motive for Brian O’Rourke’s murder. Perhaps the cop had gotten too close to uncovering DiMarco’s operation while attempting to clear his name. She simply had to find the connection. Then she would break her story and turn over her evidence to the police.

  To Aidan.

  She discovered a phone receiver without a cord and tossed it over her shoulder. Aidan had certainly been solicitous this afternoon. He’d treated her with care and consideration, and hadn’t shown a flicker of distaste about her living conditions. At least not outwardly. Who knew what the enigmatic man thought privately?

  The more she interacted with her cop, the more she liked him. She’d finally made him laugh. Memory of that sweet victory curled warmly around her heart, and she smiled. She’d pierced a layer of his defenses. They’d connected in a basic, elemental way. He’d momentarily dropped his “cop face” and let her see the man behind the mask. Then he’d freaked out. Run away.

  He might be reluctant to get involved while he still had unresolved issues in his past. She knew all about that. Maybe once he had closure, he’d be less skittish. After years of futile attempts to achieve closure for herself, she was trying to wedge the door to her past firmly shut. Would her murky lineage keep a man from becoming serious about her? What about when her someday soul mate wanted children? She had no paternal information. No medical history. No gene-pool statistics besides the fact that her mom had declared her father “really bad news.”

  Hardly a statement that would thrill a future husband.

  Fighting not to feel as worthless as the garbage trampled under her feet, Zoe uncovered a dented file cabinet containing a big bag of shredded documents. Good, she’d finally reached the managerial stuff. Too bad the files were destroyed. She’d take them home anyway. If the gang on CSI could piece shredded documents together, so could she. She wrestled aside a cracked computer monitor. Down at the bottom of the pile, she spotted two battered, broken central processing units, otherwise known as CPUs. Aha! That was more like it. She straddled one and attempted to pry it apart. Even if the hard drive inside was damaged or erased, special programs could retrieve the data. Most people didn’t know that.

  “You, in the Dumpster,” a commanding male baritone ordered. “Put your hands where I can see them and slowly climb out.”

  “Ack!” Zoe started, and nearly banged her head on the filing cabinet. She couldn’t see the man from inside the metal container, and he couldn’t see her. Still, she’d know her cop’s deep, sensual voice anywhere. What were the odds? Of all the Dumpsters in all the towns in all the world, Aidan O’Rourke had to walk up to hers. “Sorry, no can do,” she yelled.

  What could be called a heavily pregnant pause ensued. Then she heard Aidan groan. “I should have known. It couldn’t possibly have been anyone else. Fate has a twisted sense of humor.” The sound of his gun sliding into a leather holster was reassuring. At least he wasn’t going to shoot her. “Evacuate the Dumpster, Zagretti.”

  “Can’t.” She shook the CPU. She had to wrench the hard drive loose before he thwarted her. “I’m not done yet.”

  “Yes, you are. The psychiatrist’s office across the street called in a complaint. You’re scaring their patients.”

  “And they sent the SWAT team? Overkill, don’t you think?”

  “I was in the neighborhood, and answered the call.”

  “I’m just looking around.” She grabbed a nail file out of her bag and pried at the casing edges. “I’m not bothering anyone, and garbage is fair game.”

  “Why can’t you shop for bargains at the discount stores, like a normal person?”

  Her cop sounded so flummoxed, she giggled. If she let him assume she was Dumpster-diving, he wouldn’t interfere with her investigation. “Free is a very good price.”

  He sighed heavily. “I’ll give you to the count of three.”

  “Is that one, two, three, then do it?” she shouted, her question echoing off the metal walls. She continued prying, and the casing loosened. “Or one, two and do it on three?”

  “I don’t have time for this, Riggs.”

  She grinned. He’d caught the reference from Lethal Weapon 2. “You like action movies, too?” The casing broke apart. She unscrewed the brackets with her nail file and tugged out the book-sized hard drive and stuffed it in her survival bag, then started jimmying the second CPU. “You know, we have an awful lot of the same likes and dislikes.”

  “You’re giving me a headache, Brenda Starr.”

  “I have ibuprofen in my bag.” And, I hope, evidence that’s going to put away DiMarco for good.

  Another long pause ticked past. “Come out, or I’m coming in after you.”

  She wasn’t leaving without the evidence. Which gave her one option. Great. She shoved the CPU behind her. Somehow, she’d have to distract him long enough to remove the hard drive. “Welcome to my world, SWAT.”

  His big hands gripped the edge of the Dumpster and then his thick, wavy hair appeared over the top. He stared down at her, half buried in rubble. His gorgeous mouth slanted. “Now who would want to throw away a perfectly good reporter?”

  “You’d be surprised how many people have a jones for journalists.”

  He jumped inside, landing gracefully on the debris beside her. The Dumpster was so large, his head didn’t reach the top. “Can’t imagine why.”

  He was wearing his denim jacket, presumably to cover his gun. A black flashlight shoved handle-first into the front pocket of his jeans made a bulge that caught her attention. Of its own accord, her gaze wandered to the bulge slightly to the right of the flashlight.

  He cleared his throat, and she jumped, realizing exactly where she was staring. Cheeks burning, her gaze darted to the strong planes and angles of his handsome features. He arched a brow, and her blush burned hotter.

  She struggled to form words with a mouth suddenly gone dry. “I’ll bet a month’s rent you were a Boy Scout.”

  A dumbfounded expression creased his forehead. “Eagle Scout. How did you…?”

  She flicked a hit-and-run glance at the protruding flashlight. “You carry that in your T-Bird? Always prepared.”

  Something strangely like relief flickered across his face. “Oh. Right.”

  “What?” She grinned at him. “Did you think I could read your mind?”

  He grimaced as though that’s exactly what he’d thought. “Of course not. Not possible.”

  She read him a lot more easily than he’d ever guess. His snarly attitude might keep everyone else at arm’s length, but she wasn’t fooled for a second. Intimidate her? No way. He intrigued her. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio—”

  He finished the quote from Hamlet in tandem with her. “Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.


  Not just another pretty face. But she already knew that. “I like a guy in a bulletproof vest who knows his Shakespeare.”

  Aidan snorted. He spread his hands, indicating their surroundings. “Exactly how I wanted to spend Saturday afternoon. Doing the backstroke in trash.”

  He stood near enough for her to smell his warm, masculine scent. She’d never tingled all over while standing thigh-deep in a Dumpster before. “It’s not bad, as far as trash goes.”

  “And you’re the resident expert?”

  “You betcha.” She retrieved an object near his left foot. “Look at this lovely napkin holder. Only slightly dented.”

  His lips twitched. “I was wondering what to get my mother for her birthday.”

  She laughed. “You’re all set. Hey, why don’t you help me?” She’d send him to the opposite end, and scavenge the hard drive. “Then we can both leave, and everybody’s happy.”

  “The courts call that ‘aiding and abetting.’”

  “That’s garbage.”

  “No, it’s the law.”

  She laughed. “I meant it’s only junk that someone else threw away. Free for the taking. Therefore, I am not breaking any laws.”

  “You have the most convoluted sense of logic of anyone I’ve ever met.” He moved closer, and she sidestepped him. He frowned. “C’mon, Zoe, work with me here. I’m a police officer. I’m legally obligated to settle a valid complaint.” Resolve glinted in his eyes. “If necessary, I will sling you over my shoulder and bodily remove you.”

  She sat on the CPU and raised her chin, silently daring him. She wasn’t going anywhere without the second piece of possibly valuable evidence. “I’m not done yet, and I am morally obligated to make said removal as difficult as possible.”

  His eyes narrowed and he echoed her earlier question. “Have you always been this hardheaded, or is it a recent affliction?”

  “I prefer tenacious. A trait you see every time you look in the mirror.” His determined gaze captured hers, and the jolt of heat weakened her knees. What would it be like to have his focused intensity concentrated solely on her in the bedroom? Aidan the cop was a formidable presence. Aidan the lover would be an irresistible force. Her cop never left any job half-finished. He meticulously completed every task. Personally checked each detail. SWAT…seduction with attentive thoroughness.

 
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