What the Lady Wants


Page 5 of 19


Somebody knocked on his door. Since his entire apartment was one room and a bath, Mitch didn't have to move. "Come in," he called and looked up to see his best friend and sometime partner close the apartment door behind him.

Neatly pressed and stern with disapproval, Newton was the epitome of a stockbroker who had just caught his best client buying lottery tickets. His pale blond eyebrows rose up his well-bred forehead, a forehead already so high it seemed limitless, and his pale blue eyes glared behind his gold-rimmed glasses. "You know, it is not a good idea to live in this neighborhood with your door unlocked. Extremely impractical. Foolhardy. There's no reason for this. The bet didn't say you had to live in penury."

"I'm supporting myself with the profits of the agency, Newton. That was the deal." Mitch glanced around the room before he grinned at his friend. "It's not so bad. I actually like it better than my old River Road

place. It's got more character." He stopped for a moment, thoughtful. "You know, I'm glad I sold that condo. At least that's one part of my old life I won't have to go back to."

Newton's nostrils flared as he took in the stained wallpaper and cracked floor tile. "This is abysmal." He turned his survey on Mitch. "I see you finally did your laundry."

"I had to." Mitch went back to the diary. "Somebody noticed I was going without underwear. There's food on the table."

"You bought authentic food?" His friend's voice was incredulous, and Mitch looked up, annoyed. Newton was staring in amazement at the remains of June's care package on Mitch's rickety table. "Truly astounding." He bent his attenuated frame closer to the table, his beautifully cut suit refusing to crease even as he moved. "These are cookies."

"Yes."

Newton's patrician nose quivered like an upper-class rabbit's. "Homemade?"

"Yes. There's milk in the fridge. Oh, and there's this." Mitch dropped the diary on the bed and rolled over to pick up his pants from the floor and pull his wallet from the back pocket.

Newton took a plastic bottle of milk from the refrigerator. "You didn't buy milk in this. Who's giving you food?"

"The same woman who gave me this." Mitch handed over Mae's check.

"My God." Newton sank into the kitchen chair, milk in one hand, check in the other. "You did it. You won the bet." He smiled. "Our friend Montgomery is not going to be pleased."

"Then he shouldn't have made the bet." Mitch smiled back as vast satisfaction spread through him. "You know what part I like best? I did it all by starting completely over as Mitch Peatwick. I made it without using Mitchell Kincaid's credit or connections. Montgomery is going to hate that part. That's the part of the bet he thought was going to sink me."

Newton's smile widened. "I'll mention it when I call him tonight."

"Why the rush? You didn't by any chance make a side bet?"

"A substantial one." Newton's smile widened. "He implied that I never took risks, and I let him manipulate the stakes."

"I'm touched." Mitch's voice was light, but he really was moved. "How much did you risk on me?"

"Twenty thousand."

Mitch's smile vanished. "Forget touched. I'm stunned. How the hell did you ever bring yourself to risk that much?"

Newton blinked at him. "It wasn't a risk. I was betting on you."

Mitch closed his eyes. "Never bet that much on me again. What if I'd just given up?"

Newton shook his head as he put the milk bottle down and pocketed the check. "I'll deposit this in the account. And as for giving up, that would never happen." He stood and crossed to the cupboard and took out a Flintstones glass, looking at it dubiously before he rinsed it out in the sink and went back to the table to pour the milk.

"Well, at least tell me next time." Mitch leaned his head against the iron bedstead. "That way I'll know what's riding on my impulses."

For a moment, Newton seemed to lose himself in judicious reverie. "No," he decided. "I don't want to affect your thought processes."

"Newton, most of the time I don't have thought processes."

"I know." Newton gazed at him with respect. "I admire that."

Mitch gave up. "At any rate, the game's over. I made the detective agency solvent in a year and supported myself with the profits, you've got your money back, and I've soaked Montgomery for ten thousand. Now we can all go back to real life." Mitch's glance fell on the diary. "As soon as I've figured out this last case."

Newton stopped, his cookie halfway to his mouth. "You're quitting the agency?"

Mitch nodded, understanding. "I know. I'm not all that excited about turning back into a yuppie stockbroker myself, but I've got to tell you, Newton, being a private detective sucks. You'd hate the people."

Newton's face fell. "No Brigid O'Shaughnessy?"

"Well, almost." Mitch called back the image of Mae walking into his office. "You should meet Mabel."

"Mabel?" Newton bit into his cookie. "Sounds like a barmaid." Then the taste of the cookie registered on him. "These are excellent. Really epicurean." He chewed methodically and endlessly, evidently savoring the bouquet of the cookie as if it were a fine wine.

"June made them. She's Mabel's housekeeper and cook."

"Tell me all." Newton took another bite.

"A very attractive woman with fantasy breasts came into the office today and hired me to find her seventy-six-year-old uncle's killer. After that, things went downhill."

Newton chewed his bite of cookie for the thirtieth time and swallowed. "Murder? That seems farfetched. Who's the uncle?"

"Armand Lewis. It seemed farfetched to me, too, at first, but now I don't know. He kept diaries, Newton, and there's some very interesting stuff in them."

"Armand Lewis." Newton frowned. "He has a very shaky reputation."

"Had. He's dead. What do you mean, shaky?"

"People had a tendency to lose money in his vicinity. Do you really think he was murdered?"

"I'm open-minded on that." Mitch picked up the diary. "I'm only on the third one of these, but there are a hell of a lot of people who are not going to be weeping at the memorial service on Friday."

"Such as?"

"Well, June the cookie-maker, for one. She had a fifteen-year-old son named Ronnie who got into drugs back in 1967. Summer-of-love stuff. She asked Armand for help sending him to a detox place, and Armand said no. Four months later, Ronnie OD'd."

Newton frowned. "It was ungenerous of him, but hardly a motive for murder."

"The kid was Armand's son."

Newton blinked.

"June gave her notice as soon as Ronnie was buried." Mitch handed Newton the diary marked 1967. "It's all in there. He just says that he's glad Ronnie's off his back, but he's worried because the only reason June stayed was so that the boy would be with his father. Then she gives notice, and he says flat out that the reason he wants his orphaned niece to come live with him is because he thinks it will keep June."

"Orphaned niece?"

"Our client." Mitch smiled and then realized he was smiling and stopped. "Mae Belle Sullivan. She was six in 1967 when June's son died. Armand took Mae to give June another kid to raise so she wouldn't leave."

"Do you think June killed him?"

Mitch shrugged. "Could be. But we also have Harold Tennyson, the butler. He came at the same time Mae did to keep an eye on her, and immediately fell hard for June who is still quite a looker. Back then, she must have been a knockout." He stopped, distracted. "Mabel is not a knockout. She is merely very attractive, which is why she has little or no effect on me."

Newton blinked at him. "What?"

"Nothing. Anyway, Harold's smitten-ness amused Armand, so he tried to get June back again to spite Harold, even though they hadn't been any more than employer and employee since he'd found out she was pregnant years before. Only June wasn't playing." Mitch grinned. "Armand sounds truly annoyed in the diary. It's toward the back. You should read it. I enjoyed it immensely. Anyway, Armand pushed his luck one night, and Harold roughed him up a little. Armand fired him, bu

t June threatened to quit, and little Mae cried, and the guy who sent Harold in the first place leaned on Armand, so Armand had to take him back. And they've hated each other ever since. There are a couple of places in the diary where Armand says he thinks Harold is trying to kill him. Accidentally backing the car over him, stuff like that."

Newton frowned. "Is Harold homicidal?"

"Harold is a longtime employee of Gio Donatello."

Newton blinked. "Dear Lord."

"Gio is another of Mabel's uncles. He also doesn't like Armand, partly because of Mae, but also because—" Mitch picked up the 1978 diary and handed it to Newton "—Armand bilked him out of a quarter of a million in 1978."

Newton's face took on the stem disapproval of his Puritan ancestors. "That was stupid."

"That was Armand." Mitch shook his head. "He's also cheating on his girlfriend with a society woman, both of whom may be feeling less than warm toward him. And then there are any of his business partners who he may have screwed, including his brother Claud. I haven't read the most recent journal yet. I can only imagine the carnage this jerk may have caused lately."

Newton raised his eyebrows. "His brother is Claud Lewis?"

"Yep."

"I think I might be more afraid of Claud Lewis than I would be of Gio Donatello." Newton chose his words carefully, as always. "Gio can only kill you, and there's no real evidence that he's ever murdered anyone. But Claud can rain you financially, and there's ample evidence that he's done that whenever the spirit moved him."

Mitch thought for a moment. "Can you look into Armand's financial dealings? Especially his dealings with Claud?"

"I can ask around." Newton looked uncomfortable. "It's really none of my business."

Mitch rolled his eyes. "Newton, you're the one who's always saying you want to be a detective, too. If you're a private detective, it's your business to look into things that are none of your business."

"Oh."

"You said you wanted to help with the agency. This is the first time I've had something that involved skills beyond peeping and waiting. This is the good stuff, Newton."

"All right." Newton seemed to gather himself up. "All right. I'll do it."

"It's for a good cause," Mitch comforted him. "I think Armand Lewis died a natural death, but if he didn't, he didn't deserve to be murdered." He cast a doubtful glance at the last diary. "Probably."

"Probably?"

Mitch frowned. "What we have here is a man who has annoyed or hurt everyone he's ever known, and he's known a lot of powerful people. And the beauty of it is, he's written it all down in his diaries. Of course, he thinks it's a scream that he swindled Gio and perfectly understandable that he deserted his own son, but even so—" Mitch picked up the most recent diary "—he wrote it all down in these. Just like Nixon and his tapes. Ego makes people stupid, Newton."

"In that case, the last diary should tell you who killed him," Newton said. "If anybody did."

"That's what's interesting. The last diary is missing."

"Oh."

"Yeah." Mitch propped the 1993 diary on his knees. "If it wasn't for that, I'd say Mabel had lost her grip. But the thing about Mabel is, she may be unreasonably stubborn, but she's not stupid. And she's up to something." Mitch met Newton's eyes. "She's lying to me, Newton. Can you believe it?"

"Just like Brigid," Newton said.

"That's what I'm afraid of," Mitch said.

When Mitch went down to the street to get his car the next morning, all four tires were flat, every one slashed through the rubber. He called the service station, his insurance agent and the police, and then he called Mae. Even over the phone, her voice went right to his spine. Forget it, he told his spine. Then she said, "Hello?" again, and he said, "Someone appears to have stabbed my tires."

"Mr. Peatwick?"

"Call me Mitch, Mabel. It's friendlier. You're going to have to come pick me up."

"All four tires?"

"Yes. I have a sixth sense about these things, and I'm willing to bet you any amount of money that your psycho cousin Carlo killed my tires. I don't think he was listening when you told him to leave me alone."

He heard a sigh on the other end of the line and told his spine to ignore that, too. "I'll pay for the tires," she said.

"Thank you, that won't be necessary. Vandalism is covered by insurance. Now come and get me." He gave her directions and then waited while she wrote them down.

"Uh, Mr. Peatwick?"

"Mitch."

"This is in Overlook."

"Yes, I know."

"Oh. Dangerous neighborhood."

"Actually, it was a nice little place until your cousin dropped by. He lowered the tone considerably."

"I'll be right there."

"Thank you," Mitch said, but she'd already hung up, and he felt curiously bereft for a moment. This is just a case, he told himself. She is just a client. Yeah, right, his spine said.

He was out in front of his tenement sweating in the morning sun when Mae pulled up in her brown Mercedes. He seemed bigger and bulkier than she'd remembered. The same stubborn lock of blond hair fell in his eyes, and he leaned against the grimy building in the nastiest part of town with no indication that he recognized the tawdriness around him. He got in the front seat, held his hand gratefully in front of the air-conditioning vent, and said, "Great car." Mae said, "I hate it," and he said, "Why?" and she pulled away from the curb.

From the corner of her eye, she could see him looking her over from the passenger seat before he closed his eyes and turned away. "You look very nice today," he told her while he stared out the windshield.

Mae glanced down at her flowered black sundress. "Thank you." She felt an irrational glow of pleasure that he liked real Mae clothes on her instead of June's vamp skirt, and then she kicked herself mentally. It didn't make any difference what Mitchell Peatwick liked. Back to business.

"I'm truly sorry about your tires," she began.

"It's not a problem." He made himself comfortable in the leather seat. "I've alerted the neighborhood-watch association, and they'll keep an eye out from now on."

They drove past a parked car just as a spindly teenager put a crowbar through the window and grabbed the radio.

"Should I stop?" Mae asked, checking the rearview mirror as she slowed.

"Why? You already have a radio."

Mae tried to rein in her exasperation. "I thought you might like to make a citizen's arrest."

Mitch snorted.

"Well, you're a private detective. I assumed—''

"Don't," Mitch advised her. "Assuming is always bad. I, for example, assumed that since you were driving an expensive luxury car that you'd like it. Why don't you?" He blinked at her, looking more like a doofus than ever, but Mae wasn't fooled.

Not anymore.

"Why don't you like this car?" he persisted, and Mae sighed.

He wasn't going to quit asking. The thing about Mitch wasn't that he asked such brilliant questions. It was that he asked dumb questions and asked them and asked them and asked them and asked them, and eventually you told him everything you knew just to make him shut up and go away. Well, maybe not go away...

"If you didn't like this car, why did you buy it?"

Mae gave up. "I didn't. I bought a beautiful little blue Miata which was more than I could afford, but I loved it so much, it was worth the sacrifice."

"More than you can afford?"

''I told you, I'm not rich. My uncles are rich. I make fifteen thousand a year as the volunteer coordinator for the Riverbend Art Institute."

"You work?" Mitch sounded incredulous. "How come you're not working now?"

"Because my uncle just died, and the memorial service is tomorrow." Mae turned out of Overlook and onto the wide boulevard next to the university. "I have to go back to work on Monday."

"Oh." Mitch was silent, evidently digesting new information, and then he asked, "So how did you end up in a car you hate?''

Mae began to sm

ile in spite of herself. "You are incredibly persistent."

"One of my finest qualities. Why did you buy this—"

"I didn't. My Uncle Armand did. He didn't like the Miata, and it was sitting in his garage, and only the best could sit in his garage, so he traded it in for this chocolate shoe box."

Mitch frowned. "That's illegal. The title wasn't in his name."

Mae rolled her eyes in scorn. "If you think that would stop my uncle, you haven't been reading his diaries."

"As a matter of fact, I have. Well, at least you got a great car for free."

"No, I didn't." Mae turned down a tree-lined street of old brick German town houses. "He paid the difference between the Miata and this car. I still have to pay off the amount of the Miata loan, which was more than I could afford in the first place. So now I'm paying it on a car I don't even like, thanks to my Uncle Armand, may he rest in peace." Mae pulled up in front of the last town house on the right. "This is it."

"Maybe he did it for you," Mitch suggested. "Maybe it's safer—"

"He did it for him," Mae said flatly. "My Uncle Armand didn't exist without his labels. Anything near him had to be expensive. Anything else caused him real pain. It bothered him that I was driving a car that wasn't high-class enough, so he changed it so he wouldn't be bothered anymore. Then he expected me to be grateful. I wasn't. That, in a nutshell, is the story of our relationship. Any other questions?"

"Can I drive this car on the way back?"

"Pay attention," Mae said. "You're investigating a murder."

"I know that," Mitch said. "I just want to investigate it driving a Mercedes."

Mae gave up and got out of the car, leaving Mitch to follow her.

Harold's key got them in the front door. Mae led Mitch into the cool, narrow hall as she cast a quick glance up the stairway.

"What's up there?" he asked.

"I don't know. I've never been here before." She moved to the end of the hall and through an archway into the living room, and then stopped, overwhelmed by envy.

The room was small but cozy, full of soft amber upholstered furniture and pretty crocheted pillows and flower prints, everything washed with the sunlight that came through the French doors at the end of the room. Mae walked to the doors and leaned against the door-jamb, looking out into the tiny walled garden that still bloomed with the last of the summer flowers. Everything was so pretty, so warm. She bit her lip and wondered what it would be like to live in a light-filled place with somebody who listened to her and laughed with her and put his arms around her and told her that he loved her. It was never going to happen to her, but she did wonder.




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