Carrots: A Shelby Nichols Adventure (9 page)

His left eyebrow lifted questioningly, and I decided to play dumb. “Here’s your keys, I got a rental.” I dropped the keys into his hand and continued before he could ask any questions. “I stopped by the police station and filled out a report. Apparently the killer had a record. He may even have ties to organized crime.” The door started to open and I whispered, “But don’t say anything about this to Kate.”

Chris nodded, more confused than anything else. He was beginning to wonder if all the excitement hadn’t been too much for me, and I should have stayed home for another day. Kate entered with Mr. Hodges and Chris introduced us, explaining that I was taking detailed notes for them.

Kate flicked a glance at my notebook and pen, somewhat suspicious, but decided it didn’t really matter whether I was there or not. She would proceed as planned. She asked Mr. Hodges several easy questions before dropping the bombshell.

“Mr. Hodges, after seeing the evidence and hearing your account, I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you that I think you’re lying. There’s too many things wrong with the video to support the case. The video looks ‘doctored’ to me, and that alone would throw suspicion on you. We can probably determine that your store was robbed, but I’m not sure the video feed will be enough to convict the defendants.”

Mr. Hodges sucked in his breath, thinking he’d been caught. Then he tried to cover it with indignation. “Somebody robbed my store. Maybe it wasn’t those kids, but somebody did it…and it wasn’t me.”

“Of course not,” Kate said smoothly. It was the reaction she’d wanted, but she kept her elation to herself. “The police took photos and fingerprints at the scene. I just received word that a set of prints matched those of one of the defendants. We don’t have enough evidence to hold the other two, but with the fingerprints, the video, and your testimony, we’ll have a strong case. I’m not sure we’ll get a conviction, but I believe it will be enough to convince the insurance company that the jewels were stolen.” She waited a moment while that sank in before asking her final question.

“Isn’t that what you wanted?” She had him there.

“I need that money to continue my business,” he replied. “Otherwise I’ll go bankrupt.”

Kate smiled. “Good, then that’s what we’ll work toward.” She stood, signaling that the meeting was over. “I’ll get everything together, and get a court date set as soon as possible. I’m sure you’d like to get this settled quickly.”

“Yes, that would be wonderful.” Hodges stood and beamed at her, his luck was holding out. She was just the person he needed to handle his case. And to top things off, she was real easy on the eyes. He usually didn’t like lawyers, but he would make an exception for her.

Easy on the eyes? Give me a break.

“I have a few papers for you to sign in my office, and then we’ll be done for the day.” Kate expertly maneuvered him out the door. She was thinking that when she got him alone, she’d remind him of his obligation to Uncle Joey, and how much it was going to cost for thinking he could hold out on him.

Poor Hodges. If he was linked to Uncle Joey no wonder Kate was handling the case. I lost the rest of her thoughts when her office door closed, and I almost fell off my chair. I didn’t realize how far I’d been leaning over.

“Well?” Chris asked.

Crap! What was I going to say? I couldn’t tell Chris about Hodges apparent involvement with Uncle Joey. Or Kate’s either. “That was interesting,” I hedged. “It looks like he’s happy about having Kate for his lawyer. He thinks she’s ‘real easy on the eyes.’”

Chris let out a huff. “What about the jewels? Did he steal them?”

“You know, he didn’t really think about that. He was more interested in getting the insurance money.”

Chris looked at me expectantly.
Go on
, he thought.

“From what I could pick up,” I continued. “I think he set it up.”

“That’s what I thought too.” Satisfaction rolled off him. “But unless we can find the jewels, we can’t do anything about it.”

“That’s true,” I quickly agreed, grateful he wasn’t asking anything about Kate.

“Kate would probably agree as well,” he said. “But she’s a real stickler with the facts, and she won’t do anything to jeopardize her client. I’ll talk with her…see what she thinks.” He almost said ‘feel her out,’ but luckily, he caught himself.

Since I wasn’t supposed to be listening, I let it go. “Okay. Well, if you don’t need me anymore I guess I’ll head out. I’m kind of tired.” The only thing I’d written in my notebook was ‘Uncle Joey’ but it was covered with little doodle marks. Still, I didn’t want Chris to see it, so I quickly ripped out the page, crumpled it up, and threw it in the garbage.

Chris walked me to the elevator, and said he’d be home soon. I kissed him goodbye and left. It wasn’t until I got to the parking garage that I remembered I didn’t have a car. Or rather I did, but it wasn’t mine. It came to me all at once that Uncle Joey was sinking his claws into me just like he had with Mr. Hodges. Soon, he would own me, lock, stock and barrel. A sense of doom settled over me. How was I ever going to get out of this?

I found the car by pressing the unlock button, and seeing which car started blinking. When I opened the door, I noticed the manila envelope on the front seat. Inside were detailed instructions of how to get to Uncle Joey’s office, what time I should arrive, and even the clothes I was to wear in a bag on the floor. Curious, I pulled them out. First came a short black skirt and black stockings, followed by a black v-neck sweater, and black leather boots. All in my size. Now how did he know that?

I sighed, it must have been intuition that I got a black wig and black glasses…which I had left in the trunk of Chris’ car. Hopefully, he wouldn’t open it. I figured I could sneak them out later, and realized it was just one more thing I had to worry about.

Driving home, I tried to come up with different scenarios that would get me out of working for Uncle Joey. Being on the inside, something was bound to happen. Although I wasn’t sure putting him in jail was good enough to keep my family and me safe. He seemed to have far-reaching friends. Maybe someone at the meeting tomorrow would be thinking about how he wanted to get rid of Uncle Joey, and I could help him out. I shuddered, wondering if that would be classified as murder. I couldn’t be involved in murdering someone, even if it was Uncle Joey. No, somehow, I had to turn the tables on him. I wasn’t sure how, but I would figure something out.

It was the only way out of this mess.



Chapter 6

The next morning was rainy and gray. It suited my mood perfectly. The only thing good that happened was that I had lost five pounds because of all the stress. I think I’d rather have the pounds.

I’d managed to get my wig and glasses out of Chris’ car the night before, and decided it was time to get ready for the meeting. Dressed in black, with the wig and glasses in place, I looked like one of those spies in the movies. I felt ridiculous and way out of my league, but what could I do?

My back doorbell rang, and I froze as I heard it opening. “Hello?” my mother called. “It’s just me. Are you decent?”

What was my mother doing here? “Just about,” I yelled. “Give me a minute and I’ll be right there.” I pulled the wig off and threw the glasses on the dresser. Then I whipped off the skirt, and pulled on a pair of jeans. Mom was coming down the hall when I came out of my bedroom. “Hi mom, what’s up?”

“I just brought over some soup for your dinner tonight.”

“It’s ten o’clock in the morning.”

“I know, but I had some time.” From her thoughts, I knew she was really mad. “I just heard that you were nearly killed again from Gloria Lundskog down the street. She’s the one whose son is a policeman. She knew all about it. Why didn’t you tell me? It was so embarrassing that she knew about it, and I didn’t.” She paused for breath. “Are you all right? How’s your head? Did you get hurt? What happened?”

I took a deep breath. “I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want you to worry, especially since I’m fine. I didn’t get hurt or anything.”

“Gloria told me that the robber who was chasing you got shot and killed. Right in front of you. She said you were lucky to be alive. Can’t you see why I’m upset?”

“Yes. You’re right. I should have called. I don’t know what I was thinking, except that I probably wasn’t. I’m sorry, but everything’s fine now. In fact I was just leaving for a ten-thirty appointment. Can I call you when I get back?”

“Why is your hair all plastered down against your head like that?” she asked. “Especially for an appointment. It looks funny.”

My hands flew to my head. “Oh, I was thinking of wearing a hat so I didn’t fix my hair.” I needed to leave. Now.

“Where are you going?”

“I’m interviewing for a job at Thrasher Development. It’s just something part-time, to keep me from getting bored. Anyway, I’ll tell you all about it later. Okay?” I walked her to the door. “Oh, and I haven’t told Chris about this job yet, so please don’t say anything. I thought I’d wait until I decided if I wanted it before I told him.”

She arched her eyebrow at me, wondering what I was lying about.

How did she always know? “I’ve really got to go,” I begged.

“Okay,” she grumbled. “Don’t forget to call me.”

“I won’t.” I practically shoved her out the door, and ran back to my room. I quickly changed and pulled the wig back on my head, taking a minute to adjust it, then grabbed my glasses and boots. I’d have to put them on in the car.

My heart was pounding by the time I got onto the freeway. I had fifteen minutes to get there, and it usually took twenty-five. My knuckles where white by the time I exited the freeway, and I practically had to peel my hands off the steering wheel at the first stoplight. But I’d made good time.

I turned into the driveway of the parking garage right at ten-thirty and my heart fell. The door was shut. How was I supposed to get in? A car honked behind me, and I nearly jumped out of my skin. I let my foot off the brake and pulled in closer. Something on the car must have triggered the door, because it began to roll up. I took a good look in my rear-view mirror, and recognized Ramos. He had a puzzled look on his face, like he didn’t know it was me. I smiled, pleased that my disguise was working.

I found a parking space and put on my boots and lipstick, then straightened my wig. I reached for the door when it suddenly opened, and I yelped.

“Whoa, babe. It’s just me.” Ramos said. “Thought I’d help you out of your car since you were taking so long.” He pulled the door all the way open and smiled politely, then his smile got bigger. He was enjoying the view of my legs under the short skirt, so I hurriedly got out. Then I had to lean in to grab my purse. He enjoyed that view even more.

“Stop that!” I whirled around, catching him by surprise.

“What? Uh...sorry.” Despite his words, he flushed with guilt, and that puzzled him. It was something he was starting to feel more and more, mostly when he was around me. “What makes you think…?”

“Women’s intuition,” I answered.

“Oh.” That was something he didn’t want to touch with a ten-foot pole. “By the way, I like your hair. Did you color it?”

“No, it’s a wig.” He was confused, so I rushed to explain. “I don’t want anyone to know who I am.”

“Oh,” he said, then smiled and let out a chuckle.

“What’s so funny?” But I already knew. He thought it was a little late for that, but he’d give me points for trying. He couldn’t wait to see Manetto’s reaction when he saw me in the wig and glasses. I was a little ditzy and unpredictable. It made him smile. He liked that.

“Nothing,” he answered. Then he felt bad when he realized how hard it was going to be to kill me.

“Oh for Pete’s sake!”


“Never mind, let’s just go.”

We took the elevator to the twenty-fifth floor, and entered the big double doors to the suite. I was surprised to find the outer room beautifully decorated in earth tones and wood paneling. The colors made the light fixtures on the wall and ceiling sparkle with warmth. Photographs dotted the walls, and green potted plants added color. The waiting area was comfortably situated with black leather chairs, a coffee table, and a bookcase.

I hadn’t expected it to be so nice. In fact, I was thinking it would be in the basement, with a bunch of wooden chairs surrounding a bare hanging light-bulb. The chair under the light would have straps and ankle restraints. And it would be very dark.

“Hello.” A woman’s cheerful voice broke into my morbid thoughts. “You must be Shelby. I’m Jackie, Mr. Manetto’s secretary.” She came around her desk and shook my hand with a gracious smile that took me off-guard. How could this nice, classy lady work for someone like Uncle Joey? She must not know what he really did. “You can go in. Mr. Manetto is waiting for you.”

Ramos took my elbow and guided me toward another set of double doors. If he hadn’t been holding my arm so tight, I might have tried to run. My stomach clenched with sudden dread, and it was hard to breathe. What was I doing here? What made me think I could handle someone like Joey “The Knife” Manetto? So what if I could read minds. Since he knew my secret, he wouldn’t let his guard down around me. How stupid could I be? My breathing came fast, and I thought I might be hyperventilating.

“Easy babe,” Ramos pulled me to face him, his voice low and calm. “Don’t be scared, he’s not going to hurt you. I don’t know what kind of arrangement you have, but he’ll keep his end of the bargain. It’s how he does business. You’ll be fine as long as you don’t double-cross him.” Now why didn’t that make me feel better? “Let me give you some advice.” He leaned in close and whispered. “He hates it when people grovel. Whatever you do, don’t grovel. Okay?”

I could hardly believe what I was hearing. Ramos held back a smile and tried to be serious. The fear inside my stomach uncoiled. “You’re pulling my leg, right?”

“Not really, but at least now, you don’t look like you’re going to faint.”

“I wasn’t that scared.” He nodded with exaggeration, and I conceded. “Well maybe a little.” I took a deep breath. “I’ll sure be glad when this is over.”

Uncle Joey was sitting behind a large cherry-wood desk. The huge office was distinctly masculine, and reminded me of a throne room with Uncle Joey as the main focus. Wood wainscoting framed the honey-beige walls, which were accented by golden light fixtures. A rich creamy carpet covered the floor. There was a burgundy leather couch along one wall, with a small conference table and chairs in the corner. This room was even more beautiful than the other one. A bank of windows let in the morning sunshine, and it was bright and pleasant.

“Nice.” I couldn’t help being impressed.

Uncle Joey stood to greet us, and smiled indulgently, taking in my wig and glasses. “I’m glad you like it. Thrasher Development is a thriving business. One I’m very proud of.” He turned his attention to Ramos. “Thank you for escorting Shelby. If you’ll greet our guests, we’ll join you in the conference room.” Ramos nodded and left.

Uncle Joey returned his attention to me, amused by my disguise. “We’re meeting with several of the men I do business with. I don’t trust any of them completely, and I’m sure they don’t trust me, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to know if they have any hidden agendas, or secrets. Anything that would be helpful for me to know.”

“Right,” I said, wondering how I was going to keep it all straight. “How many of them are there?”

“Five. Will that be a problem?”

“I don’t know. I should be able to handle it, but I’ve never done anything like this before, or with this many people.”

“Just do your best. I’m going to introduce you as my personal assistant. Here’s a notebook and pen. Do you have any questions?”

I swallowed. I had a ton of questions, but none I could ask him. “No.”

“Good, then let’s get started.” He led the way to the conference room, extremely pleased to have my talents at his disposal.

A long rectangular table was situated down the center of the conference room. One wall was covered with windows, giving a breathtaking view of the city. The men were seated at the far end of the table, leaving the head seat open for Uncle Joey. He greeted them pleasantly, then introduced me as his personal assistant.

As he seated me beside him, I flushed when I ‘heard’ a few stray thoughts about my figure. One didn’t think I was Joey’s type, while several others wondered what else I did for him. I wanted to disappear, but at least none of them thought I was fat…that was good.

Uncle Joey didn’t tell me their names. Apparently I wasn’t important enough to know. Their interest in me dropped when they started discussing business. I let my guard down slowly, and drew a diagram of their seating arrangement on my notebook with corresponding numbers. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to tell who was thinking what, so I tried to tune in to one person at a time. It was hard work, especially with so many of them. Most thoughts centered on the discussion, and it was hard to get past that layer to what their inner thoughts were.

I started with number one. He was an older, bald guy who sweated a lot. He kept wiping his head and face with a handkerchief. These meetings made him uncomfortable, because he didn’t like to know everyone else’s business. He had too many things of his own to be concerned about. He’d rather deal with Manetto alone. He didn’t always agree with how they did things, but he kept his mouth shut. In a year or two, he would retire and let his nephew handle his assets. Maybe his nephew would have the guts to get rid of Manetto, since he couldn’t do it. They shared too many secrets.

That could be something I could use, and I made a mental note that number one would like to get rid of Uncle Joey.

The next guy had a medium build and brown hair with glasses. He was very businesslike on the outside, but his thoughts came in quick short bursts. Underlying them all, one thing was perfectly clear. He hated Uncle Joey. He was also defensive about something. I wondered what Uncle Joey had on him. It must be something bad.

It looked like number two also wanted to get rid of Uncle Joey. I pulled my mind away, and took a deep breath. This was starting to wear me out, and I could feel a headache coming on. I hoped I could make it through the rest of them.

I took a moment to relax, then focused on number three. He was a younger man, probably in his early thirties. He was very agreeable, and really wanted to make a good impression on Uncle Joey and the rest of the group. He was thinking hard about coming up with some great ideas, and genuinely wanted his end of the business to work.

I was surprised. Finally someone on Uncle Joey’s side! Without warning, I got a flash of him burying a knife in Uncle Joey’s back. I dropped my pen, and it bounced off the table with a thwack. Conversation halted, and everyone looked at me like I’d just committed a cardinal sin. I smiled uneasily, and bent over to retrieve my pen while the shock wore off.

I was beginning to wonder if anyone even liked Uncle Joey. This was bad. What would I tell him? There were only two guys left, but after this, I didn’t know if I could keep a straight face while I listened to them.

I inhaled through my nose, and concentrated on number four. He was dark and good-looking with brooding brown eyes. When I listened to him he was thinking about the basketball game coming up. He wanted to make sure he got good seats for the playoffs. His mind turned to the woman he’d been with last night. With his lips, he traveled up the length of her long legs…

I pulled away as fast as I could, but couldn’t help the crimson flush that spread over my face. I closed my mouth, and kept my eyes down, not sure I could ever look at that guy again.

When I got my composure back, I noticed Ramos studying me from his perch by the door. From what I could gather, he was trying to figure out my role in all this. Why was I involved? What did I have that Manetto needed me in this meeting for? All of a sudden my head felt like it would burst. It was almost too much. At least there was only one more person to listen to.

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