Peri checked her watch as she crawled along the freeway with the commuters. Like most inland towns, Walnut Ridge was lived in, not worked in. The residents left in the early morning, and drove south to Orange County, or west to Los Angeles. Their journey home began around three in the afternoon and lasted past six.
Four o’clock meant she was in the middle of traffic sludge.
Finally off the freeway, she wound through the wide, curving streets. As she rolled down the main boulevard, she noted a banner hanging overhead. A town meeting was scheduled for the next evening to discuss some issue plaguing the residents.
I’ll bet Rick attends, and I’ll bet he’s got something to say.
By six, she had reached her destination, a tony little mini-mansion behind huge iron gates. Rick Mayfield had done well for himself. Of course, she’d already read up on his family. His wife came from wealth. She wedged her Honda along the curb between two Mercedes, hoping no one noticed her humble ride. It was already dark, which worked to her advantage.
For a long time, there was no activity around the house, at least that she could see through the gates. Around seven, the porch light came on, as well as accent lights around the yard, low enough to be attractive yet bright enough to reveal intruders.
She noticed an easement with a walking path along the west side fence. Stepping from her car, she adjusted her ball cap and checked the laces on her running shoes. She jogged down the street, away from the house, to get an idea of the neighborhood. The houses were all large and well-spaced. Most were two stories, with balconies over the front door.
At last, she turned and ran toward Rick’s house. As she got to his gate, it opened. She stepped forward, only to pull back when a dark Jaguar blasted down the drive. The car stopped at the street, blocking her way. She couldn’t see through the tinted windows, but she had the distinct feeling of being stared at by the driver.
Perhaps he’s waiting for me to jog around him.
She gestured for him to drive on, but the car sat, idling. Peri shrugged and stepped in front. The engine growled, and the car rolled forward, threatening, so she stepped back. She waited for a moment. The car stayed put, still idling. Stepping forward again, she stared at the tinted window. Again, the car jumped forward, engine roaring. Screw this.
Swinging out to the left, she sprinted across. She could feel the warm air from the engine as the car pulled out, barely letting her get around it. The Jaguar turned down the street toward her, ruining her plan to run along the easement. It crept alongside, keeping pace. Stopping, she turned and faced her stalker. She pulled her cell phone from her pocket and glared at the car while she pointed her phone at it, and pressed a button. A flash from the camera lit the night, and the Jaguar sped off, with a slight screech of tires.
After watching until she lost sight of the car, Peri doubled back. The encounter left her with a vague sourness in her stomach and prickles along her spine. There was no way Rick could recognize her, could know her business, could know that Jared hired her, unless he’d passed the stalking stage and was into surveillance, complete with listening devices.
She trotted down the path along the easement, glancing sideways at the house. Most of the home was obscured by trees and shrubbery. The path sloped down as the property rose, allowing the owners to have a magnificent view of the canyon below, while ensuring people on the path were too low to see the house.
Well played, topography.
The path continued to wind downward in the dark, lit from above by a fragment of moon and from below by the city lights. She realized she was moving too far away from the house, and would have to trek up a steep incline to return to the street. The night smelled of wet dirt, and chimney smoke. Turning, she saw something she hadn’t seen as she jogged past.
They were wooden and appeared ancient, swept over by loose dirt, reminding her of the steps down to the coves in Laguna Beach. The handrail was also wood, and quite weathered. She laid her hand gently on the rail as she climbed, noting the roughness and taking care not to pick up any splinters. Five tall, narrow steps and she was at a small wrought-iron gate that led into the yard. The gate was decorated with swirls and a large circle with an “M” inside.
The “M” could stand for “Mayfield,” but the wealthy Mrs. Mayfield’s maiden name had been Morrison. Wonder who really holds the deed to this place?
She listened for dogs, but none had appeared as she climbed, so she pressed against the iron bars and peered inside. The grounds were a gentle slope of lush grass. An extensive patio with an outdoor living area spilled from the back of the house, ending in a natural-rock pool and spa.
Lights were on in a room downstairs, and she could see straight-backed chairs through the window. The dining area. Figures moved back and forth, entering with objects in their hands and leaving without. Dinner was being served.
A woman’s shape became recognizable. She moved as if made of steel rods. Every step she took looked angry.
A man joined her in the shadows. The woman raised her arms, a little fistball at the end of each. The man brought one arm up and leaned forward. She backed, turned, and strode away. He followed.
Nice family moment.
Soon the man’s shadow re-appeared. It was probably Rick. She watched him come to the window and stare out at the blackness. Something was in his hand; he brought it to his lips. He seemed to focus on the gate, standing still, staring. Peri feared he had detected her. She ducked, but something stopped her.
Her sweatshirt was caught in one of the curls of wrought iron. She pulled at the shirt, trying to get it unwound. It came undone as she yanked harder, stepping backward. Now something was under her foot, causing her to lose her balance. Not wanting to throw herself at the gate and attract attention, she kept backpedaling, beyond the edge of the step. Shuffling and scrambling, she tried to get her feet under her and stop her momentum.
It was no use.
She stifled a scream as she fell to the bottom, giving a series of huffs and groans. Her back and hips hit the corners of the steps with each bounce. Grasping at the handrail on her way did nothing but drive splinters into her palm. With one final thud, she landed in the dirt.
Wheezing, she attempted to rise. Her lungs did not agree and forced her to wait until they worked again. Finally, she pushed herself into a sitting position, and looked up. An object rolled about on the middle step.
She stood on rubbery legs and brushed dirt from her clothes. Reaching to the step, she grabbed the object, an empty pill bottle. She resisted the urge to stop and read the label. Getting back to the car was a better idea. Pocketing the bottle, she staggered forward, attempting to look normal.
As she reached the top of the rise, she heard a familiar hiss and sputter. Little black heads popped up from the grass and sprayed water. Sprinklers. Perfect. She would have jogged out of the way, but her body was complaining about the walk. There was no way she’d coax it to run.
She got into her car, soggy, muddy, grass-stained and already feeling her muscles stiffen. Before driving away, she pulled a bottle of ibuprofen from her tote. Two was the recommended dose. She swallowed down six. Next, she reached into her pocket for the empty bottle and looked at the label. It was a prescription for hydrocodone for Leona Mayfield.
Vicodin. She rubbed her sore shoulder. Too bad it’s empty.
Tomorrow morning she had to be outside Brandon’s apartment in Fullerton. Hopefully, she could catch him leaving and follow him.
This case was not going to be fun.
* * * * *
At five a.m. Peri lowered her battered frame into her Honda, wincing with every muscle spasm. I should have just slept in the car last night. Too bad I was busy digging splinters from my palm. And icing my right hip, left ankle, and—oh, hell, it all hurts.
There was a job to be done, however. Soon, she was sitting in front of Brandon Mayfield’s apartment, waiting for him to appear, and popping her non-prescription, under-performing pain relievers. She had found a picture of Brandon on the internet, a Mayfield family photo used for Rick’s political aims. Shawna was right. He was a good-looking kid.
An hour later, she had nearly given up on catching him at home. He was probably on social media—surely, she could dig a little deeper to find his place of employment. As she turned the key in the ignition, the front door of the apartments opened and the familiar face emerged. He stared at his phone, shuffling down the stairs, then stepped over to a bright red Audi coupe and into the driver’s seat. Peri let him get almost to the corner before she pulled out.
Less than fifteen minutes later, the Audi rolled into a parking lot, and Brandon bounced to the front of the local Bank of America branch and knocked. Another employee met him and opened the door.
Peri checked the time. The bank wouldn’t open for another hour. Seeing a takeout place across the street, she got a quick to-go order and coffee. As she returned, a short, curvy brunette was knocking at the bank’s door.
Hmm, is that Jessica?Peri settled into her driver’s seat and pulled a breakfast sandwich from the bag.
She had taken a bite, when a flash in her rearview mirror made her look up. It was a Placentia Police Car, parked behind her. A shadow passed to her driver’s side. She looked over to see a gun barrel staring back at her, and stopped moving, stopped breathing, even tried to stop her heart from beating.
“Ma’am, roll the window down and put both hands out of the car.” There was a dark blue torso behind the gun barrel, with a female voice. Peri looked at her sandwich, her mind stuck on what to do with it. When she turned toward the bag on the passenger seat, she saw another gun barrel, at the other window.
“Yes. Um, I have to turn the key over to lower the window.” Peri sat, afraid to reach for anything in the car and be misunderstood.
The torso to her left leaned forward and yanked the door open. “Step out, Ma’am.” Peri did her best to unwind her aching body from under the steering wheel, keeping her breakfast in her right hand.
“Drop the sandwich,” the female officer said.
Peri couldn’t stop herself. “But I just bought this.”
“Turn around, please, hands on the hood. And put the sandwich down.”
Sighing, she placed her breakfast on the top of the car, and felt a small, strong hand patting her down.
Several times, the officer hit her bruises. She winced but tried not to budge, focusing on the tall, slender African-American officer on the passenger side, who was going through her tote and glove compartment.
The patting stopped.
“Ma’am, could you step away from the car?” the patrolwoman asked, indicating with her gun.
Peri kept moving until the gun stopped waving. The male officer completed the search by checking out the driver’s side, the back seat, and the trunk. Peri blushed as she watched him dig through unopened junk mail and unfiled papers. After a few moments in conference, the officers holstered their weapons.
The male uniform held up her wallet. “Miss Minneepah, can I ask why you’re in this parking lot?”
“I’m waiting for the bank to open. I misjudged the time.” Easy question. Maybe too easy.
“Are you a customer?”
“No, but I was hoping to get some information about opening an account here.”
“I see you’re a private investigator. Work anything interesting lately?” Peri looked at him. The officer’s face showed no emotion, but there was something there, in his eyes. The police didn’t often ask questions they didn’t know the answers to.
“What am I suspected of doing, officers?”
They exchanged glances again.
“We got a call,” the woman said. “Someone claimed you followed them here. They said they thought they saw a gun.”
A laugh burst from Peri. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to do that. I don’t own a gun.”
“Really? An unarmed PI?”
She shrugged. “What can I say? Not anti-gun, just don’t personally want one.”
“But, you are working something, aren’t you?” the patrolman asked.
“Yes.” A flash of red caught her attention. Brandon’s car zipped out of the parking lot. As he drove away, she saw a brunette in the passenger seat. “But I’m done for the moment.” The patrolwoman looked at the disappearing car. “Sorry about that.”
They handed Peri her things and returned to their vehicle. She picked up her breakfast from the hood and examined it, brushing at the bottom of the English muffin and considering how badly the five-second rule had been violated.
Sliding back into her front seat, she waited for the police to unblock her car. It was hard to attach her seatbelt, her hands were trembling so badly. Looking down the barrel of one gun was bad enough. Two barrels reduced her limbs to noodles.
She’d lost Brandon and Jessica, probably for the day. How did Brandon know she was tailing him? She tossed her partially-eaten sandwich in its bag and pulled out of the parking lot.
* * * * *
Driving down Yorba Linda Boulevard, she paid cursory attention to the road, while her mind reviewed the morning. Brandon could not have spotted her, so who tipped him off? Before she realized where she was headed, she had driven to the hospital. Chief Fletcher had said she’d get visitation privileges soon. She parked and went in, hoping it had happened.
“Peri Minn…” the receptionist’s voice trailed off as she looked for Peri’s name. “Yes, here it is. You can go on in. Room 241.”
She stifled her urge to dash down the hall, keeping herself to a quick stride. As she turned the corner, it occurred to her Amanda and Daria would be there. Maybe Amanda would at least respect her relationship with Skip, even if she didn’t like it.
Maybe unicorns were real and Skip’s coma was a dream.
The officer at the door stood as she approached, looking at her with eyes as black as his hair. She announced herself.
He grinned. “Yes, I know. I’ve seen you with Skip around the station. I’m Ara Markel.”
Happy to know the friendly face at the door, she entered Skip’s room. The nurse was the only one with him, taking vitals.
The nurse tapped her chart on her way out. “He’s all yours.”
Peri pulled a chair over and sat, taking his hand. She stared at him. Was there more color in his face today? Leaning forward, she kissed his forehead and let her cheek rest against his temple.
“Hey, Skipper. How’s your day been? Getting a lot of rest? Jason’s working hard to process all the evidence. Sure would help if you were there. You’re so good at putting clues together, solving puzzles. I’m busy helping Jared, the contractor working on Benny’s house. Someone’s stalking him.” She rubbed his hand.
“Geez, Honey, I wish you could talk to me. I was trying to tail this guy and he made me somehow and got away. I’ve been over and over my actions all morning, and I can’t figure out how he knew I was following him.”
She leaned back. Pain shot through her hip. “Ow. I fell down a bunch of steps, into a flower bed last night. Stupid. Really hurts.”
The memory of visiting the Mayfield home flitted across her mind, especially the Jaguar looking so menacing. She told him what had happened, from the Jaguar to the fall, to this morning’s fiasco tailing Brandon.
“I couldn’t see who was in the car, but what if it was Brandon? Or maybe…what if whoever was following Jared followed him to the meeting at my office?”
A sudden idea froze her blood.
“What if Rick knows I’m working for Jared? What if he’s already ahead of me?” She kissed him again. “I’ll be back—I need to check on something.”
She scurried to her car and sped the mile to her building. Everything took too much time. As she put the car in park, her hands fumbled with the car keys.
Damn it. She sprinted to her office, and her heart fell. The door was ajar. She could hear noises inside. Not good noises, either, but the sounds of objects being thrown.
Double damn it.
Peri pulled out her phone to call 9-1-1. She had raised it to her ear when two figures came out of her office, dressed in black and wearing ski masks. One was short, one was tall, and both were lumpy. The trio looked at each other, three pairs of wide eyes.
“Son of a—what are you doing in my office?” Peri tossed her phone in her tote and reached forward to grab the short one’s mask.
Before she could pull, the tall one had pushed her against the wall. She pushed back, then felt something sharp at her throat, and retreated.
“What do we do now?” the short one whispered. It was a woman’s voice.
“Shut up.” The tall one, a man, kept the blade tight at Peri’s throat while he dragged her along the wall, into the office.
The short one followed, and shut the door.
“Now—” Short Gal began.
“Shh!” Tall Man cut her off, and stuck his leg out, tripping Peri, and tossing her to the floor. Landing on her bruised hip, she yelped. Tall Man’s eyes wrinkled in a smile. He put his thick hiking boot on her leg and stood, putting all his weight on her. She gritted her teeth and glared at him, suppressing any more sounds of pain. Still, it hurt like hell.
He stepped off and stood by Short Gal, whispering. Peri studied the pair. Tall Man was running his fingers over his knife, a slim switchblade. Short Gal was unarmed, and stood flatfooted, as if she relied on everyone else to give her the next move.
Peri looked around for something to strike back with. Her desk was upended, and there were papers and books strewn around the floor. Apart from a letter opener and a stapler, she didn’t keep a lot of sharp objects in the office. There was a pair of scissors in one of the drawers, but nothing within her reach, at least nothing that trumped the knife Tall Man had.
She looked for the safe in the corner. It had been dragged away and had obvious scratch marks and dents. But they hadn’t been able to open it, thank God. She looked over to see Tall Man watching her. Without the rest of his face visible, his eyes were more expressive. They stared at her, then shifted to the safe.
It took two steps for him to reach her. She felt him grab a fistful of her hair and pull. Her hands went up to try to take the pressure off her head—they were met by his blade. A sharp prick on her left pinkie made her yank her hands down, using them to crawl in the direction he was jerking her.
He gave her head one more vicious tug toward the safe, then pointed the tip of the knife at the keypad. No words were needed.
Peri glanced at her left hand. Blood was dribbling down the side. She wanted to wipe it off, but Tall Man seemed insistent that she open the safe first. Her pulse rose as she reached out and tapped the code. The back of Tall Man’s hand caught her cheek and slapped her aside. She flew backward and landed flat.
That’s when she noticed his hands. He had taken off one of his gloves.
Rolling over, she struggled to a sitting position, then felt another boot, this one on her shoulder, pushing her back. Short Gal had moved behind her and kept her on the floor. Peri stopped resisting and watched Tall Man open the safe door, her heart beating against her ribcage.
He tore out the few items from the shelves. Peri waited for him to find the picture she’d taped to the underside, but instead, he rifled through the papers and books. It took all her cunning to keep her expression neutral as she watched him slam the safe door shut, then stomp around the space.
“Where else would it be?” Short Gal asked.
“Shut. Up.” Tall Man sounded angry.
“Relax. She’ll never ID us.”
Peri looked up at the shorter intruder, who was now going through her pink snakeskin tote. “Hey, get out of my stuff.”
A sharp pain in her ribs made her curl in the fetal position, wheezing. She felt her hands being yanked behind her back, and her wrists being wound with something sticky. Great, they found my duct tape. Soon, both wrists were bound together, followed by both ankles. The coup de grace was the strip of shiny gray across her mouth.
At least they didn’t tape her ankles to her wrists. She laid very still, so they wouldn’t get ideas. Both of her assailants moved to the door, then gave her a final look before leaving.
Not even noon and this day has gone to hell in a hand basket.
Gayle Carline spent 30 years as a software engineer until she chewed her way out of the cubicle to become a writer. She knew nothing of writing mysteries, but figured that reading her husband’s mind was good experience. Most of her books are set in Orange County, where there are always well-manicured places to hide a body.
Author of the bestselling collection,Endless: A Literate Passion (Saint Julian Press), Anne Tammel began Poets and Dreamers following a transformative journey throughout the Mediterranean. Featured in CBS Los Angeles, Poets and Dreamers has evolved into a worldwide circle of wise and creative authors, artists, poets, and dreamers who encourage wise creative experimentation while supporting the fruition of artistic pursuits.