Vested Interests

Monette Michaels



7:45 a.m., Friday

Clockwork. Joey appreciated it—especially when he planned random acts of violence. For fifteen years, killing in all its myriad forms had been his calling, and he was damned good at it.

He’d watched the lawyer’s office and home for more than two weeks, getting the patterns of her life and those of her office staff down as if they were his own. His reputation was built on good, clean kills the first time—and organization and planning were the keys. It was a matter of pride.

Joey had it set in his mind now, and today was the day. By ten a.m., Brigit Bauer would die—a victim of an extremely well-planned, random act.

He strolled into Morrison Opera Place, the building Brigit owned and where her law office was located. Taking the stairs, he climbed to the second floor. Of the few people in the building, not one paid any attention to him. He knew himself to be a nondescript person—a good thing for a career hit man.

As was the norm for the time of day, the second floor was deserted. The building, a rehabilitated theater from the thirties, had a fifty percent vacancy rate, making it perfect for Joey’s purposes. He met no one as he took the fire stairs from the back of the second floor hall up to the third where the lawyer’s office was located.

His timing was on the mark. Bauer’s secretary was down the hall getting water for the coffeepot. From his earlier recons, he knew she would stop and gossip with the receptionist in the advertising firm near the restrooms. She’d be gone for fifteen minutes—never more and never less—more than enough time to plant the vehicle for the lawyer’s demise.

Joey slipped through the open doorway into the office and stole down a dimly lit, book-lined hallway to the break area. There, he found the pastries the secretary had picked up that morning at a bakery down the street. Among those pastries was the lawyer’s favorite, a blueberry cake donut.

Habits, both bad and good, were devices to be used. Many of his victims had been brought down by their slavish devotion to their routines, their addictions. Brigit Bauer’s fetish for blueberry donuts would be her downfall.

Taking the capped syringe filled with Oleander sap from his pocket, Joey injected the fast-acting poison into the pastry. She would never know what hit her.

Personally, Joey was pissed, insulted. Any killer-wannabe could slip a victim poison. Given his choice, he would have planned a more hands-on and far bloodier end to the lawyer’s life. But his employer wanted it to look like an accidental death, a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, much like the Tylenol poisonings many years ago.

Since variety had always been one of his calling cards, Joey gave in to his client’s demand for a quiet kill. An occasional hit of this type couldn’t hurt his reputation; it demonstrated creativity and cunning. He prided himself on the fact no two hits were ever alike.

Pocketing the recapped syringe, he left the office.

No one had seen him.

Five minutes, start to finish. He sauntered out of the building and down the street, where he entered a coffee shop to wait on the results of his morning’s work. He’d continue to watch the building until she came to work and, then, until the ambulance or police came.

Only after he was sure his job was done, would he call his client and arrange delivery of the rest of his money—fifty grand for a piece-of-cake hit.

Chapter One

8:15 a.m. Friday

Gasping, Brigit awoke. Brushing tears from her face, she sat up. Damn. It had been a year since Joseph’s death and months since she’d last had the dream. Why now? Just when she’d decided to get on with her life.

Maybe because you still blame yourself.

Who else could she blame? She’d stood there and watched her husband die. Done nothing, just stood there.

The combination of the sounds of the clock radio blaring Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to The Jungle,” a morning thunderstorm, and her phone ringing finally jolted her from her morbid memories.

Fumbling for the phone, she put it to her ear and mumbled, “Hel-l-lo?”

The nausea she always felt post-dream threatened to engulf her. She beat it down and concentrated on her secretary’s rambling speech. With her free hand, she pushed her long auburn hair out of her eyes and glanced at the clock, double-checking to see if she’d overslept. Nope, she hadn’t.

“Slow down, Rita.”

“Did I wake you?”

“Yes, but the clock radio went off at the same time. Don’t worry about it.”

No way would Brigit admit she’d been awakened by the dream—nightmare, really—again. Rita already thought Brigit was too hard on herself.

She swung her legs out of bed. “Now, what were you trying to tell me about the Willises? They aren’t due until nine o’clock.”

“They’re here now … and they’re arguing already.”

Brigit detected a mixture of irritation and upset in her secretary’s voice. She could also hear loud voices in the background.

Oh, brother. Poor Rita.

Rita was into peaceful auras. The Willises were not. She’d once informed Brigit that Ruth and Fred Willis had dark auras, not at all peaceful.

She’d also told Brigit her aura was sickly but could be improved with positive thinking. Brigit didn’t disbelieve her secretary. Most days she didn’t have the energy to be positive. Work was the way she dealt with grief. Work had saved her sanity. Today wouldn’t be any different.

“Okay, separate them.” Brigit sighed. “Put one in my office and one in the small conference room. All I need is for the mediation to be over before it even starts.”

As she walked into the bathroom, Brigit listened to Rita’s interpretive and highly amusing account of the couple’s current disagreement.

God knew she wasn’t particularly looking forward to this morning’s session. In the past eighteen months, the Willises had essentially dug into their respective trenches and were engaged in a pitched battle over everything they’d accumulated in their twenty-year marriage.

Bottom-line, Fred wanted out to marry his twenty-something secretary, but wanted to keep his lifestyle—or at least his new love with her 38DD-hold on him wanted to maintain his lifestyle. Ruth wanted to make him pay through the nose and have no lifestyle at all.

Brigit had gotten the impression that Ruth, if she felt she could get away with it, would just as soon erase her soon-to-be ex and his little indiscretion off the face of the earth.

The couple’s respective lawyers now expected Brigit to work miracles. Her gut told her it wasn’t in the cards on this one. But then again, she’d never been one to give up on a case. She hated to lose—not reaching a settlement in a mediation was losing as far as she was concerned.

Interrupting Rita’s stream-of-consciousness editorial on what was wrong with the Willises and the state of marriage in general, she spoke into the phone. “You’ll do fine. Treat them like you do your brothers—smile and tell them what you want them to do. I’ll get there as fast as I can.”

Brigit couldn’t help but laugh as Rita started to chant her mantra for the day, which sounded very much like “just do it,” then hung up. She could always trust Rita to make her day a bit brighter. Her secretary might be New Age crazy, but she was otherwise quite competent and a joy to be around. Bossing around eight brothers had given Rita a lot of practical experience in grace with humor under fire. The Willises would be shuffled to the designated rooms before they realized what had hit them.

Yes, she thought as she turned on the shower, it was going to be a lovely morning. Whatever had made her believe mediation was a kinder and gentler profession than law, she'd never know.

Humming along with the radio, Brigit stepped under the water and mentally reviewed her schedule. Thankfully, her day would keep her too busy to dissect the reasons why she’d dreamt about Joseph again. After refereeing the Willises for about three hours, she’d go to Probate Court and spend the rest of the day watching her client and her client’s sister fight over their poor old mom’s debilitated person. Legal sororicide without the blood. Brigit’s only consolation was her client seemed to be the lesser of two evils. At least the client paid her bills. Joseph had taught her to appreciate that in a client.

She smiled, remembering all the times he’d pulled her into his office and said, “You did the work, didn’t you? So don’t feel guilty about charging for it.” Then he’d give her that amused smile and tell her he loved her.

Good God. Now she was getting maudlin.

Grief and she had a love-hate relationship. In order to conquer the myriad of emotions she felt since Joseph’s death, she’d found herself a new project, sort of like the twelve Labors of Hercules minus eleven. Brigit had approached the Near East Side Community Organization and offered them her legal services in gaining historic preservation status for the area in which her office building sat. Her fee—free—had been the right one. It wasn’t going to be easy, but she’d eventually beat the city of Indianapolis and the developers. What better memorial to her dead husband than saving his beloved neighborhood from the wrecking ball?

Maybe, then, she could find some peace.

After drying off, Brigit entered her large walk-in closet and pulled out and rejected several suits. Nothing appealed to her. She was only twenty-eight for chrissake. Everything in her closet was navy blue, gray or black, chosen to mimic the masculine world in which she worked. Joseph’s world of movers and shakers.

Frowning over one more boring navy blue suit, she caught a flash of bright pink at the back of her closet. Shoving clothes aside, she pulled out a Chanel suit with a very short skirt that Joseph had urged her to buy in New York. The memories of drinks at Elaine’s and then dinner at Tavern on the Green sent a warm glow through her.

Anger quickly followed, flowing through her like a hot knife. Anger at herself—at the person she’d allowed herself to become.

Damn, she was tired of looking and feeling dead and buried. Joseph would have kicked her out of this guilt long ago. She’d wear the bright suit. Starting today, she’d cultivate a positive, brighter attitude. She couldn’t change the past, but she sure could make an attempt to control her future. The world had better watch out—the new battle-ready Brigit was about to make an appearance.

He’ll like it. Shake him up a bit.

She grimaced. Where in the hell had that thought come from? Him who?

You know where it came from. Admit it. There’s another reason you want to get on with your life.

“Shut up!” shouted Brigit, her voice echoing in the empty room.

She couldn’t deny the niggling inner voice’s truth. Nor could she deny the frequent, increasingly sexual dreams about another man. She didn’t know which dreams bothered her the most—replays of Joseph’s death or the orgiastic dreams about a man so outside her experience level he might as well have been from Mars.

The man from Mars was NESCO Board member Tony Pendrake—Tony of the pewter gray eyes, long black hair, craggy looks and muscled build of a decathlete. He was the reason her subconscious tortured her. He was a legend in the neighborhood. His background as a Navy SEAL and, if the rumors were true, his heroics in his civilian profession as a security troubleshooter qualified him as every woman’s idea of a wet dream.

Rita called him one hot stud. Brigit had to agree.

Admit it; you’ve got the hots for him.

As much as she’d like to deny it, she couldn’t. Six months ago, she would’ve called anyone a fool for thinking she’d look forward to being in the same room with a man like Tony. He scared her. He fascinated her. Hell, he wasn’t even her type; nothing at all like Joseph, who had been urbane and civilized.

Grabbing her briefcase, Brigit set the alarm and left her house. She pulled out of the garage and drove to her office, five minutes away on a good day, but with the thunderstorm, she’d bet it would be more like ten. Indy drivers just didn’t do rain well, especially the first hard rain of the season.

As she inched along from traffic light to traffic light, Brigit reflected that her past dating experiences—prior to marrying Joseph and none since his death—embodied her taste in cars. Like her silver-gray Volvo, they had been staid and safe, involving tame, yuppie professionals who’d probably never protected anything but the finish on their new BMWs from hailstorms.

Tony wasn’t safe or tame. He made her madder than anyone had in her whole life. Considering that some of the lawyers she’d opposed in court were assholes and snakes, that was saying a lot. Some days she swore he did it on purpose just to see how she’d react, testing her for some devious reason of his own.

He’d be at the NESCO meeting tonight. Her nipples pebbled and warm moisture dampened her panties in anticipation. Then icy realization hit—she probably didn’t even register on his radar.

* * * *

8:30 a.m., Friday

Wincing at the pain in his injured shoulder, Tony Pendrake stretched his legs out as far as the first class seats would allow. The assignment had been rough—the evidence of just how rough was the very ugly hole in his shoulder courtesy of a terrorist’s bullet. Discounting the wound, the mission had been successful. The Manders Drug Company now had their top research scientist back, only slightly worse for the wear.

Defusing kidnappings committed by terrorists was one of his company’s specialties. The more dangerous the job, the more the company got paid. The remuneration for this contract would make Tony and T.P. Security wealthier to the tune of mid-six-figures.

Right now, he just wanted to get off the damn plane and stretch his legs.

Ivan Ivanovich, his associate on the Manders’ case, leaned over and whispered, “Do you think she’s offering her very ample treasures to you or me?”

Ivan referred to the stewardess who’d been displaying her cleavage to both men every chance she got.

“Well, if she’s offering them to me, I’m not buying. Go for it if you’re interested.”

“I’m not—but I’m surprised you aren’t. She is very sexy, dah?” Ivan laughed, then sobered. “You have been very quiet since we left Heathrow. Is your wound bothering you much?”

Tony rotated the injured shoulder slightly. “Yeah, it itches and burns, but that’s not what’s keeping me from taking that woman up on her offer. I’m not into chasing all the available tail, or whatever, anymore. I’m thinking about finding a more permanent relationship.”

“Does that relationship have a name?” Ivan’s Russian accent became more pronounced. “Someone like Brigit Bauer?”

“That obvious, huh?”

Shocked to know he’d been so transparent, Tony turned to stare at his friend. Hell, he’d only realized he wanted her about a month ago.

Dah. All of us, we have noticed. It has been very hard not to. You mention her quite frequently. You argue with her at all the NESCO meetings for no other reason that we can determine than to attract her attention to you or away from the other men.” Ivan hesitated as if searching for the words. “You even gave her a pet … no, that is not the word. Ah, dah, a nickname. You’ve given her a nickname.”

“That’s it?”

Tony was pretty disgusted he’d been so easy to read. He wondered if Bree realized his feelings, too, since it seemed all of his co-workers had figured it out. Some covert operative he was. He must be getting old.

Ivan grinned. “There is one more thing. We all noticed you haven’t looked at another woman in months. We have a bet…”

Tony rose up in his seat, groaning at the shooting pain caused by the sharp movement, then glared at Ivan. He gritted out, “Bet. What kind of bet?”

Ivan didn’t respond right away. Tony knew his partner wasn’t afraid of him. Ivan could handle himself, even against him. He’d wager Ivan was attempting to choose his words carefully.

“A bet on when you would make your move on Bree.”

Tony controlled a surprisingly strong surge of anger and hissed, “So, who’s going to win?”

The wary look on Ivan’s face made Tony smile.

“Ah, Turk … he predicted you would take your time. Me … I lost months ago. I’ve never known you to wait before.” Ivan shrugged his shoulders in chagrin. “Dermo, uh, shit, Tony, you aren’t mad about this little bet, are you?”

“No, I’m furious. Bree isn’t the type of woman whose name is bandied about and mentioned in off-color bets. She’s a lady.”

“You are really serious about her?” Ivan’s left brow lifted.

“Yes. Very. I intend to be the only man in her life. After this trip, I’ve decided I may need to move faster than I’d planned.”

Tony rubbed the spot where he’d been shot. A few more inches down and to the right and he’d have been dead. Yeah, life was too short to wait. His plan to storm her prickly defenses one brick at a time would have to be scratched and exchanged for the wrecking-ball approach.

He’d chosen Bree. Now, whether she would allow a beat-up warrior like him into her life was another question. He knew he didn’t match up with her dead husband for class, looks, or manners. Hell, he wasn’t even sure she liked him much … but he’d change her mind. One thing he was good at was winning.

Tonight, he would start the all-out war to win her. Tony had no thoughts of losing this battle for love. The word “lose” wasn’t in his dictionary.

* * * *

9:00 a.m. Friday

Fred Willis was nervous, and when he was nervous, he needed to eat. His bitch of a wife was trying to destroy him both financially and personally. He was afraid she could do it.

After twenty years of marriage, he knew Ruth was one who got even, rather than mad.

Dorrie would leave him if he was broke, and Ruth knew it. So she was doing her best to get everything, including his blood. Someday he might wonder if fantastic sex was worth all this aggravation, but that day hadn’t arrived yet.

The mediation was his damn lawyer’s idea. His overpaid legal eagle hoped the mediator would find a middle ground, but—and he had to give the mediator credit for trying even though she was just another skirt—Ruth wouldn’t budge. His wife was one stubborn bitch.

The hippie secretary was smart in putting the old battle-ax and him into separate rooms until the mediator got there. Ruth would’ve just started in on him, making snide comments about his cradle-robbing ways.

Fifteen more minutes and the mediator would be there, then he could concentrate on fantasizing about his date with Dorrie and the Frederick’s of Hollywood nightie he’d gotten her. But until then, he needed something to eat; the coffee the secretary had given him wasn’t going to hack it.

Leaving this room was not an option. He’d have to walk past the conference room where his wife waited. Knowing her, she’d make some bitchy remark about his expanding waistline. It wasn’t fair; she’d never had a weight problem.

Fred’s eye came back to the donut on the mediator’s desk. It had called to him when he walked into the room and been tantalizing him ever since. He’d almost convinced himself the secretary had put it there for him. After all, the mediator was too svelte to eat donuts.

Yeah, the donut had his name written all over it. He approached the desk, his peripheral vision on the doorway just in case the secretary decided to check on him. The coast was clear. He snagged the donut. Inhaling the fresh-cooked smell of the blueberry confection, he took a large bite.

Mere seconds later, his last coherent thought was that Ruth would get everything.



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