L.A.'s rich and powerful rely on Lane Chandler's company, The Private Concierge, to anticipate their every whimâ ¦and to guarantee unparalleled discretion. But then one of Lane's celebrity patrons is found murdered in the most undignified manner imaginable. In rapid succession, three other prominent clients become embroiled in separate scandals, thanks to what looks like a security breach of TPC's communications systems. As word gets out, clients drop Lane like last week's gossip. She's bent on keeping TPC's name out of the papers, but when former police officer Rick Bayless starts nosing around, she has more to worry about than bad PR. Rick knows about Lane's shadowy past, and he's certain she's hiding new secrets. With no other options, Lane must face a dangerous conspirator who knows more about her every move than she does.
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Saturday, October 5
Four days earlier
Ned Talbert hit the brakes so hard his Alfa Romeo Spider snorted and its wheels dug into the gravel like a pawing bull. The back end lifted as if the sports car was about to do a somersault, and Ned's knees knocked against the dash.
Geysering pebbles splattered the windshield.
He heaved himself back, grunting as the steering wheel disengaged from his ribs. Amazing the air bags hadn't inflated. He'd barely missed colliding head-on with the entrance gate to Rick Bayless's cabin in the San Gabriel Mountains.
The gate wasn't just closed, it was padlocked. Even in the falling light, Ned spotted the shiny new lock as he struggled to get out of the Spider. His legs were jelly. Padlocked? Rick never padlocked the gate—and it wasn't even 5:00 p.m., too early to close up the place for the night.
Ned broke into a run and didn't stop. He could see he wasn't going to get the gate open so he coiled and vaulted the chain-link mesh, leaving a strip of his pant leg on the scrollwork, leaving the door hanging open to his obscenely expensive new car, leaving it all behind, and running like a madman up the road to the darkened mountain cabin a thousand feet away.
Bayless had to be in there.
Ned could have been running the bases at Dodger Stadium. He could have been in the heat of a playoff game, that's how adrenalized he was. But he wasn't going to make it to home plate this time. Not without his friend's help.
It was getting dark, but no light glowed in the cabin windows. Rick's Jeep Commander sat in the driveway. Maybe he was taking a nap. Ned took all three porch steps in one leap and pounded on the creaky wooden door. No answer. He kept hammering, using his fist and making the door buckle with each blow. How could anyone sleep through this noise? He wondered about the odds of Rick having a girl in there. Ned had never known him to do that, but the way Ned's luck was going, this would be the time. He hated the thought of interrupting them, but he had no choice. His life was in crisis.
"Rick, you in there?" he bellowed.
Ned hit the door with his shoulder and realized it was bolted. He was going to have to kick it in. Two blows shattered the wood enough that he could reach inside and open the bolt. The interior was dark, but light from the doorway revealed the lower torso of a man sitting in a straight-back chair by the far wall. Ned could see his denim jeans and his bare feet, but little else. His face and shoulders were masked by shadows. It looked like an interrogation scene, except that no one else was in the room.
Ned didn't notice the gun until he saw Rick's hands. They were in his lap, cradling a Colt .357 Python. Rick was a former vice cop. He'd carried a gun as long as Ned could remember.
Ned's legs were jelly again. His whole body was limp.
"Rick, what the hell." It wasn't a question. It was a howl of despair. Ned knew what the hell was going on. He knew why Rick had a gun in his hands, and what he intended to do with it—and he couldn't, by any stretch of good conscience, try to stop his friend, or even change his mind.
Ned knew the whole wretched story. It made no sense that Rick Bayless should be dealing with this. He was young, forty-two years old and in his physical prime. Ned had been jealous of Rick all his life, even though Ned was the star athlete. Hell, women swooned, or whatever it was women did around men who made their eyes lose focus and their minds swim with thoughts of drowning sex. They loved the dude, but only from a distance. No one really got close to Rick Bayless, not even Ned, and they had been friends since... forever.
"Buddy, are you sure? This is it? There aren't any do overs."
Ned's voice broke, and Rick looked up. Ned couldn't see his friend's face, but he could see the movement of his head in the shadows. Rick's gaze could burn paper, and those incinerating rays were now fixed on him. But his voice was tuned low, almost surprised.
"Ned, what are you doing here?"
Ned thought about whether he should tell him the truth, but then blurted it out. "I've got a problem, man. It's bad. I've been looking for you everywhere, down at your place in Manhattan Beach, at Duke's on the pier. I even checked out the old orange grove where you go to walk and think."
Rick said nothing, which was significant because nothing wasn't "Get out of here." It wasn't "Take care of your own damn problems for a change."
Ned felt hope slam through him. It nearly knocked him over. Maybe he could talk his friend out of it? Rick was a sucker for a hard-luck story, and this one was the God's truth.
"I'm being blackmailed. I'm getting anonymous calls from some crazy dude who thinks I'm into hard-core sexual sadism—whips and chains and leaving burn marks on my girlfriend's genitals. It's sick, man. He faxed me a picture that I swear isn't me and Holly, but it looks like us. He's threatening to fax the tabloids unless I throw the next game."
Ned's throat was so dry he couldn't swallow. It sounded like he was strangling, and the pain was peppery hot. It radiated up his jaw.
He waited for his friend, and finally, Rick shook his head.
"I'm sorry, man," he said.
"I wish I could help."
Another blow to Ned's solar plexus. It felt as if his car had hit the gate and flipped this time. Ned wanted to cry. He fucking did. This should not be happening. God shouldn't do things like this.
"Rick," he implored, "we go back a long way, all the way. Don't shut me out now. What can I do to help you?"
"You can leave, Ned. It's all right. Really, it is."
Rick's voice echoed as if it were coming from somewhere else, heaven or another dimension. Ned gaped at the gun. He couldn't seem to look anywhere else. He was waiting for Rick to say something else, but it didn't happen.
Rick's fingers curled possessively around the weapon he held. It was the only thing that mattered to him now, Ned realized, the instrument of his deliverance. He was going to do it.
"You can't put this off long enough to help a friend who's in deep trouble?" Ned croaked. "Are you really that determined? Are you really that selfish?"
Ned nodded, but he couldn't say anything, not even goodbye. "Yeah" was all he could manage before his throat sealed off.
Somehow he got his shaky legs to the shattered door and closed it behind him, praying that his friend would at least let him get out of earshot. Ned would collapse if he heard that gun go off. If it had been anyone other than Rick, any situation other than this, he would have wrestled the gun away. But there was no way to save Rick. The kindest thing was to let him be. But it was a damn tragedy.
Ned picked his way down the rutted road, knowing he could easily sprain an ankle in one of the deep holes. He had a home game coming up this weekend, and another practice tomorrow.
He almost laughed, but it was the kind of laughter that scorched everything it touched. How crazy was it that he was worried about twisting his ankle when his life was crashing down around him? Everything was on the line, his career, his reputation—
And his best friend was back in that cabin with a gun to his head.
At that moment what Ned recalled most clearly about Rick was the hellishly hard time he'd had teaching the big lug how to swim when they were overgrown sixteen-year-olds. Rick had a morbid fear of water. He'd never told Ned why, but it was crucial that Rick learn to swim, because the two of them had a plan. As soon as they turned seventeen, they were going to quit school, join the army, try out for Delta Force and become bona fide heroes. What better way to escape their drug-infested cesspool of a neighborhood than by fighting the enemies of freedom and democracy? Christ, those were innocent days.
Ned had been a magnet for trouble, and Rick was always bailing him out, but in that one small area, Ned had held the upper hand—Rick's fear of water. Too bad their plan didn't work. Even if Rick had learned to swim well enough to make Delta Force, it wouldn't have mattered. A stomach ailment had kept Ned out, and Rick wouldn't join without him.
Tears burned his eyes, but what came out of his mouth was helpless laughter. Rick was still scared shitless of water. But no one could deny his courage in cleaning up the streets of downtown L.A. when he'd worked in vice. He'd focused on runaway kids, drugs and street prostitution. The man was a legend. He'd actually busted a city-sponsored youth hostel that was exploiting the kids, and got local businesses to fund a new one, with a rehab staff and vocational classes. Not that he'd ever been officially recognized for it.
He and the brass had butted heads repeatedly, and Rick had finally left the force in a storm of controversy after Rick exposed a sex scandal involving several prominent businessmen. But that was years ago. Now he did private consulting work that couldn't be discussed, for clients who couldn't be named.
Ned came to the gate and stopped, wondering how he was going to vault it. He hoped to God his friend was making the right decision. And he hoped he'd just made the right one by leaving. There was nothing left now but to go home and deal with the puke the sky had vomited on his life. It was a filthy, stinking mess, and unless he could find some way to clean it up, baseball stardom as he knew it was over.
"Lead, follow or get the hell out of the way," Ned said under his breath. It was a Pattonism that he and Rick had barked at each other repeatedly, ad nauseam, when they were kids, sometimes just for fun, but it could be a call to arms, as well. They had grown to adulthood in downtown Los Angeles, an urban jungle, and too often those three options were their only clear choices. Tonight, Ned was getting the hell out of the way.
Sunday, October 6
Three days earlier
Ginger Sue Harvey started every morning at the Midlands' Gourmet Grocery by straightening the stock on the shelves and cleaning up after customers who moved things around and left them hither and yon. She'd clerked at the store for years, but now, as the newly appoin...
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Book Description Mira, 2008. Paperback. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # M1921505958