At the time, I didn’t know if there were two shots or only one, they were that close together. I knew there was at least one, because that bullet tore a white-hot hole through my shoulder. Behind me, as I fell to my knees, the girl screamed.
Cora Mancuso was an attractive woman in her late fifties with a librarian look. A pair of horn-rimmed reading glasses dangled from her neck on a beaded lanyard. She wore her hair long and pinned up in the back. Cora routinely and unpretentiously colored her hair to counter the creep of gray. Her skin was pale and powdered, prematurely weathered by time. She usually wore modest, business-casual attire. Today it was an ivory button-up blouse over navy slacks. Her jewelry was limited to a small, gold cross on a gold mesh chain worn at her throat. Cora was often abrasive, frequently annoying, and rarely generous with her good nature.
But, she had a job with me for life.
“Good morning,” I said trying my best to sound pleasant. I may not have pulled it off. “What’s this?” I asked nodding to the beige overcoat hanging on the coat tree in the corner. The coat was slight and elegant. A woman’s coat.
“You have someone in your office.”
“I’m a detective,” I said. “I detected that. Why is someone in my office?”
“My guess is she wants to hire you.”
“Hire me,” I repeated. “Cora, you know I’m completely tied up on the Navistar convention. I don’t have time to take on a client right now. You know that.”
“Oh, that reminds me,” Cora said. “Gerry called in sick for his shift tonight.”
“Shit,” I muttered.
I stomped to the inner door and Cora buzzed me through. She offered me an unsympathetic smile.
My inner office was a suite of five rooms—a conference room, equipment room, small dorm room, bath with shower, and my working office, all connected by a short hallway and a private exit. I could live here, if I had to. I opened the door to my office and strode inside.
The woman sat stiffly on the couch. I nodded and smiled.
“Good morning,” I said and closed the door. I tossed my leather jacket over the back of one of the guest chairs in front of my desk and offered her my hand over the coffee table. She reached for it, but didn’t rise to meet my hand so I had to lean forward to make the connection. “I’m Adam Pike.”
Her handshake was non-committal, neither firm nor flaccid. Her skin was soft, moisturized. Her nails were well manicured and subtly painted.
“Good morning,” she said.
Her voice was smooth, if a bit low. When, I released her hand, she laid it in her lap, covering it with her other hand. She looked to be in her early forties. About my age. Her hair was a lustrous blonde, cut in a trendy block. She wore a modest, powder-blue pantsuit that complimented her slender frame. I moved one of the guest chairs from the desk to the couch and dropped into it.
“What can I do for you, Ms. …?”
“Ms. Thayer. What can I do for you?”
“This wasn’t what I was expecting,” she said glancing around. “This reminds me of a doctor’s office.”
“What were you expecting?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Dark. Unkempt. Smokey. Smell of booze.” She looked at me. “You don’t look like a private eye, either. You look like a professional athlete.”
I smiled. “I have to tell you, Ms. Thayer. Nighthawk Security does very few private investigations.”
“But, your website says Private Security, Protection, and Investigation.”
“It does. But, to be honest, we’re so busy with the security and protection pieces, there’s very little room for private investigations. If this can wait a few weeks, I’d be happy to speak with you again, or I can provide a few referrals. I work with a lot of private investigators in St. Thomas.”
She reached for her purse and pulled out a business card. She handed it to me. “You come highly recommended.”
It was heavy card stock, standard white back, silver-colored front. The blue and gold St. Thomas Police Department patch was embossed in the upper left corner of the card. The text read: “Detective Brad Elliott. Area 3 Homicide Unit” followed by the address for Area 3 Headquarters, and Elliott’s office phone, cell phone, and e-mail address. I glanced at her over the card.
“Detective Elliott referred you to me?”