Mandeville, on the north
side of Lake Pontchartrain, was an upscale community where the crime rate
was low, houses and yards were large and pretentious, and people had a
lot of free cash to spend on pricey trinkets.
Exactly the kind of pricey trinkets he wanted, in particular.
The one thing he'd learned early on was that if he wore a repairman or delivery uniform, he became invisible. People let him poke around outside their homes with few questions, and inside as well, depending on how forceful and professional he sounded. And people responded to questions from "official" companies on the phone with far more trust than they should.
It made his job so much easier, sad to say -- and the more affluent the community, the more complacent. Unlike the rougher parts of New Orleans, where people routinely trusted nobody else and installed door and window grills, and owned mean dogs, those who lived in these picture-perfect suburbs relied on the security of alarm systems that too often didn't work as well as they thought. Amazingly, some still didn't take any precautions beyond locking their doors and windows.
Tonight's house would make his task unbelievably simple.
No dogs, an out-dated silent alarm system rigged for interior protection only -- and yet all inside blissfully asleep, safe and snug in their beds, visions of rising stock markets and juicy returns dancing in their heads.
He targeted the back entrance because the artistically landscaped bushes and vines mostly concealed the door, and because it had a basic lock which took him only seconds to open.
Jimmying the deadbolt took a bit more time, and he closed his eyes as he gently rocked the pick, listening intently, alert to the slightest change. Picking locks was more a science than a craft, with its own laws of physics, and when he felt the familiar give, he carefully opened the door and stepped inside the dark, quiet house.
If not deactivated, the alarm would alert the security company 60 seconds after his entry, and then they'd call the owners. Unless something went terribly wrong, he'd have what he'd come for and would be out the door before that call. All the same, he remained on the alert for any movement or noises. Since he wasn't armed, the last thing he wanted to encounter was an irate homeowner with a shotgun. Or the police.
He moved quickly forward, virtually invisible in the black coveralls he wore over his street clothes, each step silent. He knew exactly where he had to go -- he'd been here a week ago to "repair" the air conditioner that, in the wee hours of the morning, he'd disabled by disconnecting the outside fuses. He'd bluffed away until the harried housekeeper had let him in to check the entire house. Once he found what he was looking for, he left, made a brief show of tinkering around outside, and then "repaired" the big central air unit simply by plugging the fuses back into their sockets.
The living room he stood in was huge, and ruthlessly decorated to proclaim how much money the king of this castle -- a trial lawyer working in New Orleans and an acquaintance of anybody who was anybody -- made each year.
Within several seconds, he'd opened the flimsy lock on the curio cabinet. What he'd come for rested on the middle shelf, artfully arranged on the glass -- and next to a silver frame holding a photograph of a smiling couple.
The man's arrogant expression, and the woman's timid eyes and smile, briefly caught his attention, leaving him with a prickling of guilt.
No time for that. He scooped up the necklace into the palm of his black-gloved hand, then carefully wrapped it in cotton, and slid it into his pocket.
He shut the cabinet door, but not before he'd left his "calling card" behind, and then slipped out as quietly as he'd come, and disappeared into the darkness of night.
Six months later
At the familiar clomp of thick-soled boots, Diana Belmaine glanced up from her desk to see her part-time secretary walk into her office. Luna was twenty-two and pretty, with pale skin and a penchant for dark nail polishes, bloodred lipstick, black hair dye, and black lace. Not surprisingly she moonlighted as a vampire guide for night tours of New Orleans.
In a disapproving voice, Luna said, "You didn't tell me you had an appointment today."
Diana removed her reading glasses, then sat back, arching a brow. "Because I don't."
"Well, there's this old guy by my desk who says he's here to talk to you."
"Does the old guy have a name?"
"Mr. Jones." Smiling didn't mesh with Luna's image, but humor lit her dark eyes all the same. "I'm thinking probably a close cousin of Mr. Doe and Mr. Smith."
Real clients -- those wealthy enough to require her services -- weren't keen on announcing to the world they needed a private investigator. They almost never came to her; she went to them. Most of her business deals transpired over café au lait and beignets at the Café du Monde, at somebody else's office, on the phone, or in dark bars.
Diana sighed and pushed to her feet, reluctant to waste time when she had a report to prepare on her recovery of a stolen Picasso. The insurance company who'd hired her probably wouldn't be surprised to learn that the painting's owner -- a cheery, white-haired oil company exec going through financial difficulties following his third divorce -- had arranged the theft so he could collect on the insurance settlement.
A trick as old as dirt, and people never, ever learned.
She followed Luna to the small waiting area of her three-room office suite, which was decorated in baronial tones of burgundy, navy, and tan, and located on the second floor of an old St. Phillip Street building, not far from the market. The lazy whir-whir-whir of the ceiling fan blended with the street noise filtering through the filmy chiffon curtains: chattering tourists swarming through the French Quarter, beeping horns, and the plodding clop of hooves as a mule-drawn carriage rumbled past.
An elegant, silver-haired man stood by the window. He wore a conservative dark suit and carried a large leather briefcase -- a lawyer to somebody with lots of money?
Thank God she'd worn a dress. Its lime green silk played up her blond hair and lightly tanned skin, and while the sheath's slim lines skimmed her curves a bit more than she'd prefer for meeting a potential client, it was still tasteful and businesslike.
"Hello." She walked forward, spine straight, shoulders squared. The man turned, and she noted a white rose adorning his lapel. "I'm Diana Belmaine."
"Edward Jones." The man shook her hand in a firm, brief grip. "You're the private investigator who specializes in stolen antiquities, I presume."
"Yes, and I also specialize in art, jewelry, heirlooms, and antiques. I handle fraud cases, too, though not as much as when I worked with Sotheby's." She paused. "Have you lost something, Mr. Jones?"
"I'm afraid so."
Diana took in his diamond tie tack, the expensive suit, and smiled. "And you'd like me to find it."
Her smile blossomed into a full grin. "Lovely. Let's talk, shall we? This way, please. Hold all my calls, Luna."
Luna looked amused again, despite her lack of a smile. "Will do, Boss."
Mr. Jones politely nodded at Luna and followed Diana into her office. The packed bookshelves and framed licenses on the wall lent an air of authority to the room, as did stately chairs in tufted oxblood leather and the massive oak desk from a cotton exchange office that had gone out of business long ago. The overall impression was one of power. Masculine power specifically, which helped overcome the annoying handicap of looking more like a Grace Kelly society girl than a private eye.
"Have a seat." She closed the door. "Would you like coffee or something else to drink?"
"I'm fine, thank you."
Curiosity piqued, Diana sat, pushed aside the clutter on her desk, and asked, "What can I do for you, Mr. Jones?"
As an answer, he hauled his briefcase onto his lap. After dialing in the combination and snapping open the fasteners, he withdrew an accordion file and dropped it on her desk with a weighty thump. He didn't push it toward her, and she didn't touch it.
"This file contains all the information you should require to investigate my client's recent loss."
"You're a little ahead of the game here. How about you tell me your client's name, first."
"Steven Carmichael." When her brows shot up, the lawyer smiled thinly. "You are familiar with my client?"
"Of course. Anybody in the antiquities business knows his name. And it so happens Mr. Carmichael approached me a month ago about taking on a case after the police investigation stalled. Something about missing crates of Mayan artifacts, destined for his new gallery." Diana tipped her head to one side. "But he hired another investigator."
That rejection still stung, especially since she suspected that the wealthy and powerful Carmichael had passed her over because he came from a generation that didn't believe a woman could handle a "tough" job. It wouldn't be the first time sexism had cost her a case.
"Ah, yes...I am aware of that situation."
"Did Mr. Carmichael ever recover his missing antiquities?"
She managed not to smile. "That's too bad."
The lawyer fixed her with a hard, assessing gaze. "A most unfortunate affair, I agree, but not the one I'm here about. Mr. Carmichael has an urgent matter he needs addressed at once, and it's of a more personal nature."
"I don't do people," Diana said, repressing a sigh. "If what Mr. Carmichael has lost is a girlfriend or mistress, I can't help."
"Actually, what Mr. Carmichael has lost is something more along the lines of a family heirloom. An ancient one, which I believe puts the matter in your area of expertise, Ms. Belmaine."
"It would help if you'd tell me exactly what it is."
"Nothing elaborate, but it has a great deal of sentimental value to my client. It's a small alabaster box containing a lock of hair and a two-inch-high statuette made of solid gold. It's Egyptian. Eighteenth Dynasty, in particular."
"From a tomb?"
"Yes." Jones cleared his throat. "The Pharaoh Tutankhamen's. And the alabaster box was inscribed with the name of Queen Nefertiti." Jones folded his hands on top of his briefcase. "My client believes the lock of hair is hers, so he is very anxious to get it back."
Nefertiti, the most fabled of Egyptian queens -- the mere mention of her name brought to mind images of her timeless beauty and grace, the mystery of her ultimate fate.
At a niggling sense of unease, she asked, "May I ask how Mr. Carmichael came into possession of such an item?"
"Completely legitimately, or sort of legitimately?"
The antique mantel clock on her desk delicately ticked away the seconds.
"Ms. Belmaine, a great number of the antiquities in museums and private collections were acquired by less than ethical means. Today they call it looting; back in the old days they called it collecting. It's the way of the world. And my client possesses the required provenance papers and terms of sale."
Official paperwork did make Carmichael's purchase lawful and justified efforts to retrieve it. It was also true that many antiquities, even some on display in world-famous museums, had been plundered -- by adventuring British lords, short French emperors, professional looters following family tradition, modern-day organized crime, or even academics who should've known better but couldn't resist temptation.
Of course, the box and its contents could be clever forgeries. But taking on this case would be a change of pace from the half-assed insurance frauds and mundane thefts she'd investigated lately. Life had been awfully tame for the last couple years, and she could use a real challenge. Something, anything, to give her wits a decent workout.
"So when did Mr. Carmichael discover the box was missing?"
"Three days ago." Knowing he'd hooked her, Jones's mouth tipped in a small, satisfied smile. "It was stolen from his gallery, the Jade Jaguar, over on Julia Street. You'll find all the details in this file, including the names of anyone with access to the building and a guest list for the gallery's opening night gala, a week ago."
"Parties are always a prime opportunity for thieves -- and the timing fits," Diana murmured. "But I didn't know Mr. Carmichael collected ancient Egyptian pieces. I thought his interests were strictly pre-Columbian."
"It's his main interest, yes, but first and foremost he's a collector of rare and beautiful art."
Diana weighed the lawyer's polite, if carefully bland, expression. "You've already hired an investigator to recover the Mayan shipment. Why not have him look into this latest theft, as well? Why did you come to me?"
"My client feels that your expertise is better suited for this situation. He wants this investigation to be discreet and delicate. I'm sure you're aware of the recent trend toward repatriating antiquities to their country of origin. An artifact such as this could explode into an international incident."
Diana raised a brow. "Did Mr. Carmichael report the theft to the police?"
Jones made an impatient sound. "Oh, come now. Surely you can understand why my client is reluctant to involve law enforcement authorities of any sort. He doesn't want to risk losing the artifact or the considerable amount of money he paid for it."
Not to mention the possibility of having his moral character publicly called into question -- which certainly explained the man's desire for a "discreet" and "delicate" investigation.
"There is one other thing." Jones reached into his briefcase, and removed a plastic Ziploc bag. It held a playing card -- the jack of spades. "This was left in place of the artifact, obviously by the thief. My client was careful not to touch it, in case there are prints."
There wouldn't be any, though she'd check to be sure. This case had all the earmarks of a professional and well-planned job.
"May I?" she asked. The lawyer handed over the bag, and she studied the card. It was the thief's signature; an introduction as personal as a handshake, and as unique as a fingerprint. A zing of excitement shot through her.
"A thief with style." She smiled. "My favorite flavor of deviant."
"Forgive me for failing to share your enthusiasm, Ms. Belmaine." Jones removed another file from his briefcase, then clicked it shut. "I've taken the liberty of drawing up a contract for your fees and services. I'll leave both the contract and evidence files for your perusal. You have the night to think it over, and I'll return to your office by eight o'clock tomorrow morning to finalize matters. If that's convenient for you."
Diana peeled back the top of the folder and glimpsed the fee in question. She hoped her eyes hadn't visibly bugged out of her head. "It's convenient."
"Of course you understand that everything we've spoken about is to remain in absolute confidence." When she nodded, Jones stood, smoothing his suit coat. "Very good. It's been a pleasure talking with you."
Diana stood as well. "One last question, please. Does your client have any potential suspects in mind?"
The man's expression remained neutral, and after a moment he said, "I'm sorry, but no."
"All right." She smiled politely. "Thank you. I'll see you tomorrow, then."
After the lawyer left the office, she looked down at the bulging folder on her desk and frowned. The purpose behind this monster file was clearly to prevent her from asking a lot of inconvenient questions.
The reason could be as simple as Steven Carmichael's reluctance to reveal he owned plundered property that could stir up an international hornet's nest. Then again, maybe he had something more to hide.
She had no reason to trust the man or any of the information in the file, and his lawyer hadn't been telling the truth when he said there were no suspects -- his hesitation, the way he'd schooled his expression, said he was hiding or lying about something.
Nothing new in that. The first thing any private investigator learned was that people lied to you. All the time. The boy next door, little old ladies, cops, priests, beggars and rich men, winos and pillars of the community...everybody lied.
An hour after officially
accepting the Carmichael case, Diana pulled her vintage sky-blue Mustang
convertible to the curb outside Tulane University's Anthropology Building,
just off Audubon Street. She surveyed the beige stucco two-story building,
with its gray-painted trim and plaster embellishment. A number of its tall,
narrow windows were open, and the place looked a little shabby, with patches
of discoloration here and there.
Diana cut the engine, anticipation coursing through her like a current of energy. After being up most of the night reading through the file and doing preliminary research, she was running on pure caffeine and adrenaline, and welcomed the familiar rush. It had been such a long time since she'd gone on a hunt like this; a hunt that wasn't predictable, safe, or easy.
Before getting out of the car, she glanced at Luna's dog-eared copy of People magazine on the seat beside her. It was the annual most eligible bachelors issue, and right there on page 44 was Dr. Jack Austin, professor of archaeology at Tulane, renowned Mayan expert, Discovery Channel regular, and all-around boy wonder. He'd discovered the lost Mayan city of Tikukul when he was only 27, and it had been his bread and butter for the following ten years -- the past five of which had been heavily funded by grants from Steven Carmichael's Ancient Americas Preservation Society.
Judging by his picture, Austin had a rough, unaffected appeal that would attract women but not make men feel uncomfortable: a man's man sort of guy. He wore canvas shorts and a sweat-dampened ribbed tank, and lay sprawled on a slab of vine-encrusted rock, muscular arms and legs spread-eagled, as if he were some sort of human sacrifice.
A strangely erotic photo, in the way the camera's focus drew the eye to certain erogenous zones. Rather like banging a dinner bell: Come and get it!
She folded the magazine and stuffed it into her purse, got out of her car, and headed for the building. She'd scheduled a meeting with Carmichael later in the afternoon, but until then she'd work her way alphabetically through the guest list for the Jade Jaguar's opening night bash -- a list that had included a most impressive number of wealthy political and society types, artists, and rival gallery owners.
So far she'd learned that the Allens were out of town and the Archers weren't morning people. Now it was Austin's turn, although considering his dependence on Carmichael for funding his excavations, he didn't rate high on her roster of potential suspects.
In a pumpkin orange linen suit and dark brown heels, wearing wide-rimmed oval sunglasses and a Hermès scarf tied in a bow around her long, straight ponytail -- Jackie O would've approved -- Diana walked with purposeful strides to the departmental office.
Today was not about being surreptitious; today was about making a vivid impression on one of America's most eligible bachelors and giving herself the upper hand by simply catching the man off guard.
When it came to getting straight answers, this strategy worked a good 90 percent of the time.
The departmental secretary, an older, no-nonsense type in pants and blouse, plainly served as the first line of defense between eligible bachelorettes and the good professor, and her demeanor plunged from friendly to chill when Diana asked to see Austin.
"I'm sorry, ma'am," she intoned. "Dr. Austin doesn't hold regular office hours, but if you leave your name and telephone number with me, he'll get back to you."
Right. Diana hauled out her investigator's license from her purse. Occasionally, the thing came in handy. "This is official business. I'm here on behalf of Dr. Austin's benefactor, Mr. Steven Carmichael."
Ooh, successful shot. The woman's mouth thinned. "I'm not allowed to give out his office number to nonstudents, but he's teaching his Intro to Archaeology class right now in room 150. You can wait outside and catch him there after class."
While she had no intention of lurking outside any classroom, Diana smiled her thanks and walked away, paying no mind to the secretary's hostile stare. Rattling cages for a living usually meant annoying people.
Five minutes later, Diana found the room, eased the door open, slipped inside, and leaned against the wall at the back of the room.
Professor Austin stood by the chalkboard at the front of the classroom, facing away from her. He wore a white short-sleeved shirt tucked into khaki cargo pants, and lectured as he drew a diagram with quick, aggressive strokes of chalk.
"...which is the theory behind terminus ante and post quem dating. Let's say you're excavating a refuse pit and want to know how to date it."
Caught up in his subject, he didn't notice the buzz of whispers, or the absolute silence that followed.
"The oldest artifact found in situ will be --"
Austin suddenly broke off, his body tensing as if he'd sensed a predator at his back, and turned.
Across the room, their eyes met -- and Diana's first thought, with surprise and irritation, was that the TV and magazine photos didn't do Austin justice. No camera could ever fully capture this man's energy or magnetism.
The direct intensity of his dark gaze commanded attention first, then she noticed how long days under a tropical sun had added coppery highlights to his dark brown hair. And how his tanned skin and lean strength made even conservative clothing look sexy. If L.L. Bean ever recruited Jack Austin as a spokesperson, their stock in button-down shirts would skyrocket.
With twenty-five pairs of speculative gazes on her -- two-thirds of them female -- Diana watched Austin, curious to see how he'd respond to her presence.
After slowly surveying her from head to toe, Austin arched one eyebrow, turned back to the chalkboard, and continued to lecture and sketch diagrams as if a strange woman in orange hadn't just invaded his classroom.
"The earliest, or oldest, artifact found in situ is often referred to as the terminus ante quem, and the latest, or newest, artifact as the terminus post quem. Everything in the pit will be dated after the earliest artifact, but before the latest."
Austin faced his class again, resting a shoulder against the chalkboard. "Some of you look confused, so let me put it this way. In my refuse pit I find dozens of record albums. The earliest, in the bottom sediment layer, is Elvis Presley's Heartbreak Hotel, first cut. The album in the topmost layer is a first edition of the Beatles's Abbey Road. I know Heartbreak Hotel came out in 1956, and Abbey Road in 1969. With nothing in the pit earlier than 1959 or later than 1969, the artifacts I find as I excavate the layers between will fall within these two dates. This means the people who tossed their trash in my pit did so during the golden age of rock and roll. Is that any clearer?"
Nodding heads, a few laughs, and a murmur of assent followed. For the remaining fifteen minutes of the class, Diana relaxed and enjoyed watching Austin in action. He had a laid-back teaching style, a deep, slightly raspy voice with a hint of a Boston accent, and no difficulty whatsoever in keeping his students' attention on him rather than on her -- despite the fact he was talking about dating ancient garbage.
This was charisma: when you didn't care if that man thought garbage was exciting; you just wanted to watch him move, hear him talk.
And she bet he'd turn that charisma up to sizzling hot or down to icy cold as the situation demanded. Probably she'd get something closer to icy cold; she often had that effect on men once they realized all the little lady wanted from them was answers to questions.
"That's it for today." Austin parked his butt on the table in front of the room and folded his arms over his chest. "Project reports are due next Wednesday. If you need to talk with me before then, see me after class."
Oh, great. An open invitation to get mobbed -- and keep her at a distance until, gee whiz, he just had to move along.
Undaunted, Diana pushed away from the wall and made her way toward the front of the room, paying no mind to the curious stares. Austin, nodding as a young woman spoke earnestly to him, watched Diana's approach with all the warmth of a big bayou gator.
"I'll be in my office at three," he said to the petite student. "You can come by then."
The woman nodded, and reluctantly moved away, the expression on her pretty face branding Diana an interloper.
Coming to a stop directly in front of Austin, Diana flashed her most polite smile. "I'm looking for Dr. Jack Austin."
"That'd be me," he said evenly, the look in his eyes telling her he wasn't fooled by her claim not to know him. "What can I do for you?"
"Diana Belmaine. Private investigator." Again, she displayed her license. His gaze flicked briefly to it without any obvious emotion, then returned to her face as she added, "I'd like to talk with you. Alone, please."
He shrugged. "Fine."
No surprise at finding a PI in his classroom? How interesting. She'd read up on Austin, and from all accounts he was something of a hothead. Two summers past, he'd gotten into a gunfight with would-be looters and ended up in a Guatemalan jail for a couple of weeks -- and that hadn't been the first time he'd used a gun, or his fists, to protect his excavations.
"Come with me to my office," Austin ordered as he pushed away from the table. He gathered together a few books and papers and walked off without waiting to see if she followed.
Huh...maybe he was a little annoyed, after all.
Diana lengthened her strides to match his, which wasn't easy in three-inch slingback heels and a tight skirt.
"Are we in a hurry?" she asked, as they approached the department office.
"No," he said, but didn't slow down.
The secretary watched their approach. "I have a few messages for you, Dr. Austin." The woman's gaze shifted to Diana as she handed over the yellow slips. "I see the lady found you."
Austin folded the messages without reading them and slipped them in his pocket. "It's okay, Carol." To Diana, he said, "This way."
He led her up a flight of stairs -- he took them two at a time, to her annoyance, although she didn't mind the view from behind -- and down a long hall. As they passed offices with open doors, Diana glimpsed people craning their necks to watch. Voices abruptly halted in midconversation.
Well, orange was an eye-catching color...and she supposed it didn't help that her heels sounded sharp and aggressive on the linoleum tile floor.
Finally, Austin motioned her into a small office and shut the door behind him. The room looked comfortably messy and smelled like old books -- a great number of which sat on shelves, on the floor, and on Austin's desk. The desk also held a computer, a phone that looked older than most of his students, and a coffee cup with dried residue at the bottom.
Two cheap stackable chairs were angled in front of Austin's old Steelcase desk, and she dropped her purse onto one as he sat. Instead of sitting, Diana examined book titles and admired a series of framed pencil drawings of Mesoamerican hieroglyphs. The drawings were amazingly detailed, but she couldn't make sense of all the stylized curves and curlicues.
Behind her, Austin shifted in his chair, and the atmosphere in the small room all but hummed with his impatience.
After several seconds, Austin said dryly, "You did need to talk with me, right?"
"Yes, I do." Confident she'd regained the upper hand, Diana turned. "Lovely drawings."
"Mayan hieroglyphs. It's a pictorial form of language." He sat back to watch her -- or, more accurately, to better check out her breasts and legs. "Have a seat."
Diana smiled, despite her annoyance at his blunt appraisal of her body. She rested a hand on the back of a chair, but remained standing to keep him looking up at her for a moment longer. "I know what glyphs are. I majored in archaeology in college, but it turned out I didn't have the patience for the work. Plus I'm not big on bugs and dirt."
"So you became a private investigator?"
"I'm good at piecing things together, and I specialize in art fraud and stolen antiquities -- so I put what I'd learned to good use after all."
The muscles around his mouth and nose tightened, ever so slightly.
"So why do you want to see me?"
"I'm here on behalf of an acquaintance of yours." Diana made a show of sitting down, smoothing her short skirt and crossing her legs. "Steven Carmichael."
Austin leaned back, his chair springs creaking loudly. "What happened? Did Steve lose another couple crates of pots?"
"Something like that."
He rubbed his thumb along his bottom lip, plainly skeptical. "So you're really a PI? This isn't just a way of getting in my office so you can slip me your telephone number?"
Wow; nothing small about this man's ego. She fixed him with a cool look. "In your dreams, Dr. Austin."
Smiling slowly, he looked down, his gaze lingering on her mouth, then lower. "I'm already there."
His frank, wholly male aggression surprised her, then immediately roused her suspicions. On a sudden hunch, she deliberately recrossed her legs. He didn't look down to watch, much less leer.
Well, well. Not exactly Mr. Consistent. Austin was overplaying his interest in her, probably as a distraction -- which intrigued her almost as much as that fleeting look of wariness on his face moments ago. She'd go along with him -- for now. "You're trying to flirt with me."
He made a face of mock concentration and pointed a finger at her. "Good observation skills. I bet you're one crack private investigator."
Oh, boy. Smart-ass alert.
Not rising to the bait this time, Diana pulled a notepad and pen from her purse, catching sight of the People magazine as she did so. On an impulse, she took it out, folded it to the page with Austin doing his pagan sex god impersonation, then tossed it on his desk. He looked down, face impassive, then pushed it aside, out of his direct line of vision.
Almost as if it embarrassed him.
"I'm sure there are a lot of women across the country who'd love to worship you up close and personal, Dr. Austin, but I'm not one of them."
Austin laid a hand over his chest, drawing her attention to his long fingers, dusted with dark hairs. Powerful hands, more a workman's than a scholar's, and yet somehow still elegant.
"I'm crushed," he said.
Diana clicked her pen with force. "No, you're not. Now, let's get back to business. These artifacts are over three thousand years old, worth a heck of lot of money, and my client wants them back."
He raised a brow in apparent amusement. "It might help if you told me what you're looking for."
In spite of her sudden, irrational urge to lunge across the desk and shake him, Diana maintained her poise. "A small alabaster box with a gold statuette inside. It's Egyptian. Eighteenth Dynasty. Were you aware my client had these objects in his private collection?"
Austin leaned even farther back, resting an ankle across his knee, lacing his hands behind his head -- which did wonders for showing off his chest. Oh, yes; the man obviously knew a distraction technique or two himself.
"Steve collects lots of things, including financially challenged archaeologists, but mostly he collects pre-Columbian art," Austin said in that low, raspy voice that seemed to rub against her skin, as soothing-rough as a cat's tongue.
Diana shook off the sensation. "Did you know he owned Egyptian artifacts? Yes or no, please."
Something very like anger flashed across Austin's face. "Yes, although not what you've described. I've seen a few scarab amulets and rings. And I remember him mentioning pottery and a late Roman funerary portrait. That's it."
Nodding, she jotted down his answer, then looked up. "He funds your excavations at Tikukul, doesn't he?"
"His foundation does, in part. I'm high-profile, and the society likes high-profile. Good PR and all that."
Diana detected a coolness in Austin's voice, as if maybe he didn't think too much of his benefactor. "And you also know about the shipment my client recently lost to thieves."
"Who doesn't? I read the newspapers, and I talk regularly with Steve."
He jiggled his foot, drawing her attention to his hiking boots. Well-worn and expensive; boots for someone who did a lot of walking and climbing.
"And just so we're clear on this, Ms. Belmaine, I'm paid to find artifacts, not steal them."
Alert to the tension rising in the room, Diana said evenly, "I never said you stole anything."
"No, but you're considering it." Austin smiled again, but it didn't quite mesh with his intent, watchful expression.
"Nothing personal, Dr. Austin. In my line of work, everybody's guilty until proven innocent."
"Bet that makes you a fun girl to talk with at parties," he said dryly, then shifted in his chair, lowering his foot to the floor with a loud thump. "So about this box and statuette, I assume they belonged to someone famous."
"I'm not at liberty to discuss specific details, but yes, they have a definite historical significance."
"I don't have to be an Egyptologist to make a few guesses here. Are you talking about the last pharaohs of the Eighteenth Dynasty? Tut and company?"
"Let's say that's true." She kept her expression noncommittal. "Who among Mr. Carmichael's circle of acquaintances would be interested in acquiring funerary artifacts from this period?"
Austin laughed, a chest-deep, genuine laugh that made it almost impossible not to want to laugh along with him.
"Come on, you're looking at a select group of wealthy people who obsessively collect old things, and the older and rarer the better. You're gonna need to come up with better questions, Ms. Belmaine."
Tamping back a fresh spurt of annoyance, Diana smiled. Despite his arrogance and attempts to goad her into losing her cool, she couldn't quite resist the pull of his attraction -- and it wasn't just his good ol' boy sex appeal, either. Behind the smiles and studied indifference, he was hiding something. She could all but smell the lies he'd wrapped around himself.
"Oh, I don't know. I'm learning quite a lot so far. More than you realize."
At that, Austin sat forward, elbows on the cluttered desk, his face suddenly serious. "Okay. This has been fun, but I have another class to teach soon. How about you tell me why you're really here."
Pushy, pushy. Diana tipped her head and asked, "What time did you arrive at the Jade Jaguar for the opening party?"
"I got there at eight, and left at about ten-thirty."
"At any time did you go upstairs to the offices or storage room?"
"I drank a lot of Steve's free wine, and had to use the upstairs john a couple times when the downstairs one was busy. Other than that, all the action was in the gallery. I didn't want to miss Steve's big night." Again, a hint of sarcasm colored his tone. "Why are you asking?"
"Because the theft likely occurred the night of the gallery's opening. I'm talking with all the guests, starting with the 'A' names and working my way on down."
"Lucky me, that my name starts with an 'A.'"
Diana raised a brow at his sarcasm, then turned her attention to jotting down his answers.
"How good are you?"
Caught off guard by the question, Diana glanced up. "Excuse me?"
"How good are you?" His focus on her had suddenly intensified -- almost uncomfortably so. "As an investigator, that is."
Her face warmed at the suggestive tone of his voice -- and she didn't like how easily he flustered her. "I always get my man, Dr. Austin."
Most of the time, anyway.
"That's not exactly an answer."
Diana didn't break eye contact. "I just wrapped up an insurance fraud case, and last month I recovered a quarter million in gold bullion looted from a shipwreck off the coast of Florida."
"A quarter mil." Austin's expression had turned speculative, assessing -- as if he'd finally decided to take her seriously. "How'd you do it?"
"It takes hard work and determination, though sometimes I don't have to work as hard as you might think. The thieves tried to sell the gold on eBay."
"You're serious?" he asked, incredulous.
"Nobody ever said crooks are smart," she said lightly. "Most of them are pretty dumb."
His focus on her sharpened, and then he smiled. "But you like it better when they're smart."
She shrugged. "It's more of a challenge that way."
"You like the hunt."
"No, Dr. Austin." Holding his gaze, she leaned slightly toward him, and smiled back. "I love the hunt."
A charged tension filled the room, and as the silence between them lengthened, she sensed she'd just hit pay dirt. He knew more about what happened at the gallery that night than he was telling; she just didn't know exactly how much yet.
"Are we done?" Austin asked evenly.
"For now. Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions." Diana stood, and pulled a business card from her purse. "If you hear anything that might help, please give me a call."
Austin took the card, but didn't look at it. "Will do."
Diana hitched her purse over her shoulder and donned the sunglasses for a touch more attitude. She didn't move away from the desk. "I think you're lying to me, Dr. Austin."
As his smile widened, her temper snapped. She hated it when people -- especially men people -- thought they could toy with her just because she was female and blond.
Walking with a deliberate, languid slowness around his desk, she leaned down, close enough to smell the scent of his soap and shampoo; close enough to see the fine lines around his eyes, the mingled brown and copper shades of his hair, the reddish beard stubble...and to feel the tension vibrating off him.
A tension thick with as much sexual awareness as anger.
"I'll be watching you," she whispered in his ear, her lips nearly brushing his warm skin. She moistened her lips with her tongue, and he tensed. "And if you did help yourself to a couple extra party favors from my client's gallery, I'll take you down, no matter how much it'll break my poor little heart to see your very fine ass in jail."
In such an intimate proximity, she could feel every touch of his breath. Finally, she stepped away. Though she yearned to knock that damn grin off his face, she coolly blew him a kiss, then strolled out the door and shut it firmly behind her.
Smile fading, Jack stared
at the closed door and pulled in a long, deep breath. The sweet, musky
scent of her perfume lingered heavily in the air, filling his senses and
stirring something inside him that was better left unstirred, dammit. The
receding click of her high heels still echoed outside in the hall, and
nearly matched the crazy beating of his heart -- which wasn't just because
Jesus. Letting out his breath, he rubbed at his brows. The day had started out bad and now, thanks to this feral female who'd crashed his classroom and the refuge of his office, it had gotten a whole lot worse.
But his initial alarm began to fade, edged out by a sense of admiration -- and a hot bloom of lust. He'd always liked women with a bit of a bite to them; too bad this particular woman could also deep-six his career and his reputation -- his life -- if he wasn't careful. For damn sure, he hadn't seen the last of this hot blonde with the cool blue eyes that saw too much.
She'd caught him by surprise, that was all. While she had a few suspicions and a lot of brass, she had no evidence. Yet, in under fifteen minutes, she'd made him. How had he tipped her off? Had she seen or sensed something, or was it just that he'd hadn't been able to resist playing with her a little?
Later. He'd worry about this later when he had more time to think.
Frowning, he looked down, and that stupid magazine Diana Belmaine had dropped on his desk caught his attention.
I'm sure there are a lot of women across the country who'd love to worship you up close and personal, Dr. Austin.
Judging from the disconcertingly large amount of mail he'd received over the past few years, most of those "women" averaged about fourteen years of age, and sent letters usually starting with: Dear Dr. Jack...you are SO hot! I saw you on TV...
Off to the side of his desk were more of those letters; they'd piled up all summer while he'd been sweating out the jungle heat at Tikukul. He'd take them home tonight and write back, since not answering wasn't an option. While it embarrassed him to have a starring role in the fantasies of 14-year-old girls, he couldn't be such a bastard as to stomp all over their dreams.
A knock sounded on his closed door. Shaking free of his morose thoughts, Jack looked up, and called, "It's open."
The door swung inward, and one of his students poked her head inside, smiling shyly -- and reminding him it wasn't only the fragile psyches of 14-year-olds he had to be careful with.
"Melissa. Come in." He smiled, trying his best to look fatherly yet distant. As she made to shut the door, he added, "Please leave it open."
Because he had to be careful of his own ass, too. Despite the pretty PI's skepticism, women had offered him their phone numbers -- and a few eye-popping propositions -- in the privacy of his office.
"Oh. Okay. Sorry." The young woman sat down, dropping her backpack to the floor, and looked at him expectantly, notebook and pen in hand.
"I'm doing my project report on underwater archaeology, but I'm not sure what articles to start with? I was kind of hoping you could help me with that?"
Jack reined in his impatience. He rattled off a few names and titles as Melissa wrote furiously, then added mildly, "All these articles are in the library. Try the subject index. If you have any trouble, just go find the reference librarian."
She beamed at him, as if he'd said something startling and profound. "Thank you, Professor Austin. This has been a really big help."
He rubbed at his cheek, hiding a smile. "No problem."
Two more female students followed Melissa, each with equally transparent motives, and after the last one left, Jack shut the door. He was gathering his books and a slide carousel for his next class -- a grad seminar on Mayan hieroglyphics -- when a knock sounded again.
The door opened to admit not another student, but a tall woman with graying dark hair, wearing sensible pants and an equally sensible blouse -- Judith Mayer, the department chair. Never a good sign.
"Hey, Judith, I'm on my way to class. Can it wait?"
She shut the door firmly behind her.
Jack grimaced. "Guess not."
"Why was that woman in the orange suit here to see you? Carol told me she's a private investigator."
Judith gave a heavy sigh. "What did you do this time, Jack?"
He tried not to scowl. "She's talking to people who were at Steve Carmichael's opening party at the Jade Jaguar. I was one of the guests. That's it."
"So we won't get any embarrassing calls from reporters?" She narrowed her eyes. "Or the police?"
"Look, I settled the problem in Guatemala over two years ago. It's time to let it go, Judith."
Fat chance of that; she'd never let him forget he was the only professor during all her years at Tulane who'd ever been arrested and jailed.
Her attitude pretty much summed up the department's love/hate relationship with him. They loved the attention he brought since it translated into funding for other faculty projects, but hated the occasional controversy. He never apologized for his temper, his opinions, or his tendency to get in the way of trouble or a camera, and while he could've taken a position at any university, he'd wanted to come to New Orleans. It wasn't like any other city in the country, and he fit right in with all the other beggars and thieves, liars and charlatans.
"I can't help always jumping to conclusions where you're concerned." Judith's mouth, outlined in a sensible neutral lipstick, curved in a thin smile. "You're an asset to our department, and your work is top-notch, of course. But I'm not quite convinced that not even the time you spent in jail taught you a single thing about being responsible."
Academic envy was at the root of much of her dislike of him, and he tried keeping that in mind at times likes this. "Trust me, it taught me plenty. Now, excuse me, but I gotta go impart knowledge and inspire minds."
"One of these days, Austin," Judith said coolly as he brushed past her, "you're going to dig yourself a hole so deep you won't be able to get out."
Just outside the door, Jack turned. He gave her an exaggerated wink, knowing it would annoy her. "Hey -- even us brainy guys need to have a little fun."
The Jade Jaguar was the newest of many antique shops and galleries in the Warehouse District, an area reclaimed in recent years from neglect and ruin. The abandoned buildings along Magazine Street had been converted into luxury condos, pricey shops, and galleries. Travel guides called it the "SoHo of the South," and Diana couldn't visit the district without remembering New York -- sometimes a blessing, sometimes not.
She found a parking spot close to Julia Street and pulled in. She was early, which gave her a few minutes to think about Jack Austin. A short while ago, she'd been certain the man had lied to her, certain he knew something about the alabaster box and gold statuette, but now doubts began seeping in.
He'd been awfully cocky, but maybe that was his natural personality. It didn't make sense that a respected, tenured professor would be supplementing his salary with a little black market dealing in ancient artifacts.
Yet she couldn't dismiss the possibility. The mess she'd left behind in New York had come about because she'd refused to believe the obvious when she should have, and by the time she'd faced the truth, it had been too late.
She wouldn't make that same mistake with Austin. Yes, he was good-looking and yes, he appeared to have everything a man could want -- but that didn't automatically earn him good guy status.
Diana swung out of the Mustang and locked the door, acknowledging another thought: She couldn't dismiss Carmichael as a suspect either.
Tangling with the rich and powerful was like walking a minefield -- too often things blew up in your face -- and she wanted the thief to be a gallery employee. The chances of that remained high. Past experience had taught her that if the owner of the "stolen" item wasn't trying to pull something funny, then an employee had seized a moment of opportunity to make a fast buck.
But before interviewing Carmichael's employees, she had to talk to the head honcho himself and quiz him about that stolen shipment of Mayan artifacts. She didn't believe in coincidence; that he'd been the victim of two robberies in such a short time period suggested more than a simple theft of opportunity.
Diana walked quickly past the boutiques, antique shops, and galleries lining Julia Street, anxious to get out of the heat and sticky humidity. She couldn't miss the gallery's sign -- a snarling jaguar painted jade green -- mounted on the weathered pinkish brick of a square, squat warehouse.
Walking inside revealed an airy, modern gallery. Diana stood in the cool entryway, letting her eyes adjust to the muted lighting.
A young black man wearing a security uniform and a sidearm -- a new addition to the security, that gun -- greeted her when she walked forward. "Hello, ma'am. Is there anything I can help you with?"
"I'm Diana Belmaine. Mr. Carmichael is expecting me."
"I'll have someone call up to the office and let him know you're here."
While she waited for an employee to escort her to his office, Diana strolled into the gallery. The brick interior walls were painted red, and plants dominated the decor: tall palm trees and large-leafed, potted plants sitting on the floor, as well as hanging from the walls. Display cases held most of the artifacts, although a few had been mounted on the walls, and the larger items -- stone steles, architectural friezes, vases, and sculptures -- were arranged in freestanding displays. Simple benches lined the walls, and water trickled peacefully from a small, central fountain. The carpeting was a broad-leaf pattern, in shades of dark red, green, brown, and gold.
Junglelike, except for that savage red splash of the walls.
A Mayan jade funerary mask, in a display case in front of the center fountain, caught her attention, and she walked over to admire it. Spectacular, beautifully preserved, and worth a freaking fortune -- a museum could build an entire collection around such a piece.
"Lovely, isn't it?"
Recognizing the voice -- and its slight Texas twang -- Diana turned to the man behind her, a smile disguising her surprise that he'd come himself.
Gray-haired, gray-eyed, wearing jeans and a short-sleeved chambray shirt filled out by broad shoulders, Steven Carmichael looked younger than his sixty-four years, thanks to the best personal trainer, clothes, and haircuts money could buy. Most women would find him handsome and compelling; he exuded the power of a man used to getting his way.
"Absolutely beautiful," Diana said.
"It's part of my personal collection and not for sale. I have it out here because I can't bear to lock it away. It was created for kings and gods, and something this magnificent is meant to be seen."
Not sure what to say, she held out her hand. "Mr. Carmichael, I'm Diana Belmaine."
"I remember you from our last talk, Ms. Belmaine." He shook her hand firmly. "My apologies for being unable to meet with you sooner, but I've had a hectic schedule this week."
"No apology necessary." She turned toward the jade mask. "Late Preclassic period, and in excellent condition. Where'd you buy it?"
"A private auction." He didn't elaborate, and motioned behind him. "Would you like a quick tour of the gallery before we talk?"
"Yes, thank you," Diana said. "The place is gorgeous."
"Most of the credit goes to my manager, Audrey Spencer." Carmichael smiled, which made him look even younger, somehow softer. He really was quite an attractive man. "I'll introduce you to her in a moment. This way."
The tour didn't take long. As she knew from the building plans in the file, the gallery had been designed as one open room, with a central suspended spiral staircase of distressed iron that led to the storage room and offices located on the partial second floor. There were public rest rooms on the main floor, as well as a small gift shop that sold quality souvenirs, calendars, books, and framed and unframed prints. The gift shop had a cash register, but all sales for pricier items were conducted one-on-one in an upstairs office, the ultimate in customer service.
A desk with a computer and phone sat to one side of the main room, and behind it stood a petite, red-haired woman wearing an off-white linen dress. She smiled at their approach.
"This is Audrey, my right arm and my lifeline. Audrey, this is Diana Belmaine. She's investigating the theft from my office. She'll talk to you after she meets with me."
Diana shook hands with the woman, quickly sizing her up: young, attractive, and single. Plenty of potential motivation right here. Audrey might be decent, honest, and hardworking, but she could also be sleeping with the boss. There were reasons why men like Carmichael hired perky young assistants.
Still, the intelligence in the woman's hazel eyes hinted she knew exactly what Diana was thinking, and her smile chilled a fraction. "I'll be happy to give Ms. Belmaine my full cooperation, Steven."
"I know you will. Ms. Belmaine, this way, please."
Carmichael, unlike Jack Austin, acted like a perfect gentleman. He politely led the way up the stairs, making small talk. While Diana responded, she noted the second floor took up roughly half the space of the first, supported from below by columns covered in leafy vines. She could see almost the entire gallery from the balcony. All the office doors faced the brass-and-Plexiglas balcony -- no place to lurk unnoticed -- and were equipped with number pad security access.
Carmichael opened the center door and motioned her inside. A massive aquarium took up almost half a wall, its bluish glow filling the room until Carmichael snapped on the lights. It was a spacious office, the walls painted soft white and decorated with Victorian-era prints of ruined cities in jungles, as well as more very nice artifacts, including an Aztec portrait head and an intact Preclassic Mayan vase.
The carpeting was an off-white Berber flecked with brighter colors, and the furnishings Danish modern in honey tones. The L-shaped desk held a computer, fax, printer, and a lot of scattered files and paper. A matching armoire stood to the left of the desk, and two office chairs, upholstered in red leather, were placed in front. A large red leather couch tucked against the far corner, with a coffee table stacked with books and magazines, finished off the room.
The back wall had a line of small windows, all of wire security glass. Not the easiest place to pull a heist, but she never underestimated human ingenuity.
"Have a seat, please." Carmichael pulled out one of the red chairs for her, and she sat, thanking him.
He moved to the other side of the desk and eased down into his chair. "I imagine you have questions."
Diana nodded. "I read the report in the file. From what I understand, the armoire contains a safe, your personal files, cigar box collection, and a few other smaller pieces from your collection."
The phone rang. He ignored it, and after three rings, somebody answered. Probably Audrey, his gal Friday.
She removed her pen and notebook from her purse. "The box was in the armoire, correct?"
"The file was missing a few important papers. Like proof of insurance."
"That's because I didn't insure this particular item. I'm sure you can understand why," he added. "Considering the potential for controversy, I gambled on absolute secrecy keeping the artifact safe -- and I lost."
Well. So much for an insurance fraud motive.
"The report also didn't mention how or where you stored the artifact."
Carmichael smiled, amusement sparkling in his eyes. "I kept it in one of the cigar boxes."
Diana arched a brow. "You kept something worth a small fortune in a cigar box?"
"Not just any cigar box, but one I had specially designed for it. A number of my smaller and more valuable pieces are concealed in the faux cigar boxes to deter thieves. I reasoned that if anybody did manage to rob me, they'd take the safe and leave the boxes, which aren't worth much." His gaze hardened, and for the first time, Diana glimpsed the depth of his anger. "Again, I was wrong."
"May I see the armoire?"
Carmichael got up, unlocked the doors, and swung them open. She noted no scratches or splinters on the door; but a lock this basic would be easy to pick without a need for force. The lowest shelf held a small safe that was bolted to the wood, giving an illusion of security, but in reality a thief only had to saw through the wood and walk off with it. A clever decoy -- except it hadn't worked.
The shelf above the safe had been converted to a file rack, and the remaining three shelves were stacked with cigar boxes, some old, some new -- a large number of them Cuban, and Cohibas in particular.
She didn't consider it her place to point out the ticklish legal aspects of buying or bringing Cuban cigars into the US. So her client wasn't lily-white; who was? The odds of working for a saintly client were on par with being swept off her feet by a hero on a white horse.
Carmichael motioned at the boxes. "These in front actually contain cigars. I know which ones are just cigar boxes, and which ones are fake and hold coins, jewels, and my other small treasures."
"Why don't you keep them in a safety-deposit box? It's what most people would do."
"I know, but I've always preferred to have my collections close at hand. That way I can show the pieces whenever I want. And besides, I can't bear to lock any of them away."
It was the second time he'd said as much, and he must've seen the skepticism on her face because he smiled.
"I'm a collector and a connoisseur, Ms. Belmaine. I believe objects of beauty, these pieces rich in our past and heritage, are meant to be seen by all, not buried in bank vaults, a rich man's mansion, or in some crate in a museum basement. Call me eccentric, but I believe that since I am privileged enough to have the means to own them, the very least I can do is share them."
Carmichael's benevolent god tone was starting to irritate her. "Except you weren't planning on sharing the Nefertiti box with John Q. Public, were you?"
"No. Very few people know I own this little memento. Please understand that I don't approve of the fact it was stolen in the first place, but it's passed through many owners over the years. It's mine now. And I will get it back."
He sat down, and Diana joined him. She'd seen what she'd needed in the armoire.
"I can tell you don't approve," he said after a moment.
"My personal feelings aren't important. You hired me to recover stolen property legally belonging to you, and that's what I'll do."
He steepled his fingers, studying her over them, the animated gleam in his eyes at odds with his crisp, authoritative bearing. "Think about it: to have in your possession a family memento of an ancient pharaoh who died when he was little more than a boy, a lock of hair that might have belonged to history's most beautiful queen...how could I resist?"
"You don't owe me an explanation, Mr. Carmichael."
Scholars the world over would give almost anything to have a piece of hair that could make clear the mysterious lineages and tangled successions of Egypt's most controversial dynasty. But Carmichael was paying her to find a thief -- paying her very well -- and it'd be smart to focus on that, rather than judging his actions.
Smoothly changing direction, Diana spent the next half hour questioning him, mostly about small details. She'd just asked about the lost Mayan shipment when Carmichael announced he had another meeting. He handed her off to Audrey, asking her to show Diana the rest of the offices and storage rooms.
Diana took Carmichael's brush-off in stride, and, notebook in hand, carefully examined the gallery, questioning the security guard and Audrey as needed. Audrey smiled that same cool smile, but she responded with efficient professionalism. If she was boffing her boss, it wasn't because she was too dim to know better.
After another hour of poking about and taking notes, Diana asked Audrey to show her the upstairs area. The storage room, on the far left, smelled like raw plywood and sawdust and, as expected, contained shelves and lots of boxes. Next she checked over the employee lounge, including the bathrooms, and found everything neat and tidy. While Carmichael's office connected to the lounge, that door had a private security code known only to him and Audrey. The last office, on the right, belonged to Audrey.
"I share the office with our accountant, who works Wednesdays and Fridays," she explained, punching in the security code and opening the door.
Although smaller than Carmichael's office, it had been decorated in the same pale colors and minimalist modern furnishings -- two desks, a row of filing cabinets along the right wall, art prints lining the others, and more plants. The same small windows, same security glass. Audrey's desk, which looked neater than her boss's, also faced two red leather chairs.
An unsecured door in the far wall caught Diana's attention -- she didn't remember seeing it on the building plan. "Does that lead to Mr. Carmichael's office?"
Audrey nodded. "Usually we keep it closed, but when Steven and I are working on joint projects it's easier to come and go without the hassle of dealing with the security locks. And without customers seeing us."
"So you and the accountant have access to Mr. Carmichael's office?"
Again, Audrey nodded. "But I rarely go in there when he's not at his desk. The same goes for Martin, the accountant."
"How about the housekeeping staff? The security guards?"
"Of course they'd have access to all the rooms. The housekeeping staff clean during regular hours, and someone is almost always up here. The guards patrol after hours, and their duties include checking the offices." Audrey walked to her desk. "Please have a seat, Ms. Belmaine."
"Thanks." Diana sat, and flipped to a new page in her notebook. "Let's talk about the night of the opening party. Who organized it?"
"That would be me. I'm in charge of most everything at the gallery, from ordering souvenirs to picking out carpet to feeding Steven's fish when he's out of town."
Diana smiled. "No wonder he can't function without you."
Audrey smiled back, a shade more friendly this time.
"What was security like the night of the party?"
"Lax, as you can imagine, although people had to produce an invitation to enter. We had over a hundred guests coming and going between 7 P.M. and midnight, as well as the caterers and waitstaff. We had a guard on duty at the front door and on the balcony. All the offices were locked except for the staff lounge, because we needed to keep the upstairs bathrooms open."
"Makes sense." It also meshed with what Austin had told her earlier. "So you know for certain that nobody entered Mr. Carmichael's office, or your own?"
Audrey said, "Yes," even as a blush slowly colored her fair, freckled skin.
Diana let several seconds pass. "You're sure? When I interview the other guests, no one will remember seeing anybody enter either office?"
"You're interviewing our guests? All of them?"
"I'm an investigator, Ms. Spencer. It's what I do."
Audrey looked down, sighed, then met Diana's gaze again. "All right. I went up to my office. Steven doesn't know, and he'll be angry if he finds out."
Diana couldn't give the assurance of silence that Audrey wanted, so she asked, "Why were you up in the office during the party?"
"You have to understand I've been working my ass off for months on this gallery, getting it ready for the opening. Most days I got in here at six in the morning and didn't leave until ten at night, and that includes weekends."
Diana nodded, encouraging her to continue, and closely watching her. Right now, she read only embarrassment mixed with a little defensiveness.
"So finally the gallery is open, the party is a huge success, and all that time and effort I put into things has paid off." Audrey shrugged. "I was finally going to kick back and have a good time, you know?"
Again, Diana nodded; a woman-to-woman-I-understand kind of nod.
"I overdid things with the wine, and this guy was at the party...a guy I've been in lust with for months." Audrey's face grew even pinker. "Blame it on liquid courage, but I kind of propositioned him. He must've hit the wine pretty hard, too, because he said yes."
"Why is it strange he said yes? You're an attractive woman."
Audrey looked a little uncomfortable. "He's never paid much attention to me before. Not in that way."
"So you and this guy went up to your office for a little privacy."
"Yes, except that...well, Steven has a couch in his office." Audrey fiddled with a paper clip, bending it out of shape. "A big couch."
"Ah," Diana said, and managed to hold back her smile.
"Steven would kill me if he knew. Well, not literally kill me, but he'd be pretty angry."
Audrey blinked. "He'd be angry because I acted unprofessionally. Steven and I don't have a sexual relationship. He might try for that if I gave him the chance, because I know he's not exactly faithful to his wife, but I don't sleep with married men."
The woman's expression was steady, open. Honest. If she didn't sleep with married men, she probably didn't steal, either.
"Who was the man you brought upstairs?"
"I'd rather not say."
"Ms. Spencer, people saw you go upstairs." Diana leaned forward, and said gently, "All I have to do is start asking questions, and eventually I'll find out. It'd save us both a lot of time if you just tell me now."
Shoulders slumping, Audrey looked down. "His name is Jack Austin."
A jolt of surprise hit first, quickly followed by anger, and then a tiny twinge of disappointment. After a moment, she said calmly, "Jack Austin...he's that archaeologist from Tulane, right?"
Audrey nodded, a tiny smile curving her mouth, satisfied and smug.
Keeping her temper in check, Diana pasted on a sly smile and played the "sympathetic girlfriend" angle. "Lucky you. I've seen pictures of him. He's really good-looking."
Audrey brightened and leaned forward as well, all hush-hush and conspiratorial. "Oh, God, yes. Every time he calls, every time I see him, I get this little zap, you know? I've been in lust with him ever since Steven first introduced us --"
"Which was when?"
"A few weeks before Jack went to Guatemala for the summer. And this may sound dumb, but he's not just another pretty face. He's smart and funny, and so interesting to talk to. Get a few beers in that man, and the stories he can tell...I can't believe I made a pass at him. And I still can't believe he said yes!"
"Oh, I believe it," Diana said evenly.
So the studly Dr. Austin had lied to her -- and helped himself to a lot more than the upstairs john and Audrey's obvious charms.
Closing her notebook with deliberate slowness, she sat back again. "Ms. Spencer, do you know why I'm here?"
Audrey's smile faded. "One of Steven's Egyptian pieces is missing."
"You don't know exactly what it is?"
The woman shook her head. "Unless it's in the gallery, it's his business, not mine. And I would never steal anything from Steven."
"Please understand, these are questions I have to ask," Diana said automatically. "How about Dr. Austin? Would he do it?"
Audrey stared at her. "You're kidding, right? Jack's not that kind of guy, and he and Steven are really tight. Steven treats him almost like a son. Jack wouldn't do anything like that, not even as a joke."
Now this was an interesting bit of news. Judging from Austin's earlier attitude about Carmichael, she didn't expect a father-son type of relationship.
"Besides," Audrey said with a sigh, "we weren't even in the office for ten minutes when Jack's pager went off and he had to leave the party. Something about an emergency with a grad student in the lab."
"When was this?"
"I don't know...I wasn't paying close attention. It was after ten, though."
Which meshed with Austin's story. At least he hadn't lied about everything. Bully for him.
"And the two of you were together the entire time you were in the office?"
Audrey frowned. "He didn't steal anything."
"Please answer the question, Ms. Spencer."
"I went to the bathroom to freshen up." Audrey's demeanor had chilled again. "We didn't do the deed, but I had to fix my makeup and hair before we went back downstairs. I let him make his call from Steven's office. I was in the bathroom for no more than a minute or so, Ms. Belmaine. That's it. I can't believe you'd even consider that Jack could do something like that, or be so stupid."
"I'm only doing my job. It's nothing personal."
The reminder seemed to calm Audrey, and she reluctantly nodded. "Sorry. I just know none of Steven's friends or acquaintances would steal from him. It must have been somebody on the catering or cleaning crew. You're talking with them, too, right?"
"Yes." Diana returned the notebook and pen to her purse, then stood. "That's about all I need to know for now, thanks. If I have other questions, is it okay for me to drop by to see you, or call?"
"Sure. Steven said I was to do everything I can to help." Audrey came to her feet as well. She hesitated, then asked, "Do you have to tell him I was in his office with Jack? I wouldn't have done it, except I wasn't thinking clearly. I just...the gallery is my dream job. I don't want to risk losing it over one dumb impulse."
The woman appeared genuinely worried, and Diana's anger toward Jack mounted. "If nothing comes of this, then I won't feel obligated to say anything."
Audrey looked relieved. "Thanks, I appreciate that."
Diana followed Audrey back down the staircase. Now that it was early afternoon, business had picked up. A dozen or so people had come into the gallery, including a middle-aged couple intently examining a case of pottery. Audrey went to them, relieving the gift shop clerk. Diana headed for the doorway -- and stopped short when she saw Steve Carmichael off to the side, deep in conversation with a man she recognized all too well.
Realizing they hadn't yet noticed her, she stopped and watched them together. Smiles, low laughter...they seemed chummy enough. And why not? Without Carmichael, Austin wouldn't have the funds for excavating each season. Austin's high profile probably came in handy when Carmichael solicited donations for his nonprofit society. And maybe Carmichael liked Austin as a friend; just because Diana didn't like the guy didn't mean others couldn't.
"Steven," Audrey called from behind Diana. "This nice couple would like to talk to you about the Calakmul vase?"
Both Carmichael and Austin glanced up, catching sight of Diana at the same time. Carmichael smiled. Austin did not.
"All done, Ms. Belmaine?" Carmichael asked as he walked toward her.
"For today, yes."
"Good." He touched her on the shoulder, smiled once again, then made his way to Audrey and the older couple.
After sharing a long and not entirely friendly look with Austin, Diana turned her attention to Carmichael, observing his enthusiasm as he spoke with his potential customers. The man owned an oil drilling and shipping business, a farm, a foundation, and a number of other ventures, but it was plain the gallery was his pride and joy. He didn't need to be here, hobnobbing with his customers, but he loved it.
Turning back to Austin, she caught a fleeting look on his face -- so brief, she couldn't really pin it down. But it had tasted...tense; nothing like the easy camaraderie she'd glimpsed moments before.
She moved toward Austin, who stood by the glass case displaying the funerary mask, and let anger roll over her. It didn't matter that Audrey propositioned him first, or even that nothing had actually happened between them. This wasn't about Audrey, who was an adult and welcome to screw up her own life. This was about Austin using a woman for his dirty work -- and that cut way, way too close to a personal pain she wanted badly to forget.
Diana faced Austin, and, for an instant, something hot and alive and aware flared between them.
"Nice mask, huh?" she said, her tone silky and cool.
"I've seen it before." Austin barely glanced down before adding dryly, "You sure do get around."
"Oh, you'll find I'm very thorough." Diana moved closer into his space, and as his brows shot up in surprise, she placed the narrow heel of her shoe on the top of his boot and pressed down -- hard.
Austin's eyes opened wide, startled and pained. "What the --"
"That's for using Audrey Spencer, you son of a bitch." She stepped back, and gave him a cold smile as she walked toward the door. "You're not getting away with it, Austin. I promise you that."
Getting Her Man
Book Description: Let the Hunt Begin... Private Investigator Diana Belmaine always gets her man -- and her hunt for a brazen, clever thief leads the cool blonde straight to Dr. Jack Austin. A globetrotting adventurer and shoo-in for "America's Most Eligible Bachelor," Jack is a pillar of the community and guilty as sin -- but Diana's learned her lesson about sweet-talking men and won't be swayed by Jack's obvious charms. Jack is used to living on the edge and is drawn to smart, sexy women with a bite -- but Diana's vow to expose his secret could cost him his livelihood, his reputation, perhaps even his life. With nothing left to lose, his beautiful adversary his only salvation, why not surrender to fate...and steal her heart?
Originally published by Avon Books in 2002. Romantic Times Reviewer's Choice nominee for Best Mainstream Novel of 2002.
"Sexy, sassy and exciting ... and the touch of intrigue gives this book a zesty edge!" – Romantic Times Top Pick