Authors: Candace Schuler
Mueller studied the card for a moment. "What are you investigating?"
"Zeke Blackstone, for starters," Steve said.
"I knew you was a couple of reporters," Mueller said angrily. He tossed the card on the floor in disgust and started to turn away. "Get outta here before I call the cops."
"And Ethan Roberts," Steve said.
Mueller turned back around to face them. "Huh?"
"And Eric and Jack Shannon," Steve added softly, knowing he had him now by the suddenly avid look in the smaller man's eyes. "And their possible connection to a young woman by the name of Donna Ryan."
"Where'd you get them names?"
Steve glanced at Willow, silently indicating the pictures she carried in her pocket. Intuitively understanding his intent, she withdrew all eight and handed them to him. Steve sorted through them quickly, selected the one he wanted, and handed it to Mueller.
The older man was silent for a long minute, studying the picture in his hand. "You want to know about the suicide, don'cha?"
"We want to know about that summer," Steve said. "Whatever you remember."
"The reason is confidential."
"Then so's my memory."
Steve flipped his wallet open again. "Would twenty dollars help make it less so?"
Mueller didn't so much as glance at the money.
Willow reached out and put her hand on Steve's arm. "Mr. Mueller isn't interested in your money," she said. She didn't know how she knew that, but she did. The covetous look in his strange gray eyes wasn't for the greenbacks in Steve's wallet but for the secrets of other people's lives. Mueller wouldn't take money for what he knew but he would trade information for information.
"Donna Ryan was my mother," Willow said to him. "We think one of the men in that picture is my father."
"Yeah, I remember her. She was a real looker," Mueller said. "Moved in here with her girlfriend back in May of 1970. Ethan Roberts—the one who's running for senator now—he was the one who told her about the vacant apartment. He was working with her on some TV program... some soap opera thing. Guess he thought he'd have a better chance to score with her if she was close by."
"And did he?" Steve asked.
"Who the hell knows?" Mueller shrugged. "It was wild around here in those days. Parties all the time. Kids climbing in an' out of each other's beds like they were playing a game of musical chairs. Didn't have no AIDS to worry about back then. I know she went out with Roberts a couple a times. But I seen her go out with other guys, too, including Eric Shannon. You ask me whether she was sleeping with any of them, I got to be honest and tell you I don't know. She didn't let none of the guys crawl all over her like some of the girls did. Leastways, not in public so's anyone could watch it."
He pushed open the door to the courtyard and stepped outside. Steve stuck his hand out over Willow's shoulder, stopping the heavy door with his palm before it could close in her face.
"Now, right here is where Blackstone stumbled over the body that night," Mueller said with relish, pointing to a spot on the concrete courtyard patio where a tub of flowering hibiscus now stood. "The police said the Shannon kid had been dead for a couple of hours by the time Blackstone fell over him. Couple a people actually walked around him while he was lying there like that, thinking he was just was passed out drunk or on drugs or something. Two kids were lying on a chaise longue right over there, makin' out, and they didn't even notice him. He'd landed on his back, smashed in his skull real good and broke his spine in three places, but you couldn't tell that by just looking at him. And it was dark. With the shadows and everything, nobody noticed the blood."
He seemed to derive a macabre sort of enjoyment from being the teller of the sad tale. Like an ugly little troll, Willow thought, dispensing his horrid little gems, one by one, and watching to see how they would be accepted.
"Cops figure he jumped from the third floor. From that balcony up there," he said as he pointed it out. He looked straight at Willow. "That's where your mother and her girlfriend lived," he said, watching her for a reaction.
"He jumped from my mother's apartment?" She felt Steve's hands settle on her shoulders from behind. They steadied her in some indefinable way, transferring his strength into her just when she needed it most. "Was she there when it happened?" she asked calmly. "Did she see him jump?"
Mueller shook his head. "Cops figure she was down at the party in 1-G when it happened. She was the one who heard the screaming, though. Called the ambulance, too."
"There was screaming?" Willow said. "I thought you said no one saw what happened."
"Girl on the chaise longue with her boyfriend started screeching when she realized they'd been doin' the nasty in front of a dead body." Mueller rubbed his chin with the back of the hand that still held the pipe. "Didn't seem to bother her none when she thought he was just drunk."
"What was he doing in Donna's apartment if she wasn't there?" Steve asked, steering the conversation back to what he considered a more relevant topic. "How'd he get in?"
"All he'd a had to do was open the door and walk in. Like I said, it was pretty free and easy here in those days. Nobody bothered much with locking anything up. Cops figured he probably chose her apartment because he knew no one was there to stop him from killin' himself."
Willow was silent a moment, contemplating that, trying to gather her thoughts, trying to sort out how she would feel if Eric Shannon turned out to be her father—and she'd lost him before she even found him. "Does anybody know
he killed himself?" she asked.
"There was some talk about him and his brother having a big argument that night but, hell, who knows? Could be true, I guess. The two of 'em were always arguing over something, and Jack Shannon did disappear right after the inquest, which kinda points to a guilty conscience, if you ask me. He ended up in 'Nam and then became one of them mercenaries you read about. Traveled all over the world, selling his services to the highest bidder. 'Course—" Mueller shrugged "—could be there wasn't no argument at all. Could be Eric Shannon was just so loaded he thought he could fly. It don't make any difference why, anyway. It had to happen."
to happen?" Steve said.
"He saw the woman in the mirror."
"The legend again," Steve said. "That's a load of crap and you know it."
"The legend's true," Mueller said stubbornly. "Back in 1930 an actress named Jeannie Masters drowned in the swimming pool that used to be right here where we're standing. You can see the outline of it," he said, pointing. "It happened during a wild party, just like with the Shannon kid, and nobody saw a thing. Nobody knows whether it was an accident or suicide or murder."
"Oh, for cryin' out loud," Steve said, all but throwing his hands up in exasperation. "That story is nothing but a bunch of superstitious mumbo jumbo dreamed up by somebody with more imagination than sense—probably in an effort to attract tenants to this place."
"It's as true as I'm standing here," Mueller insisted. "The lady appears in the mirror in 1-G in a long white dress and smiles, sorta sadlike, and then you know something is gonna happen."
"You're telling us that you've actually seen this mysterious ghost woman?"
"I ain't saying I have and I ain't saying I haven't. I'm just saying I know what happens to people who do."
"Yeah, right," Steve scoffed. "And the only ones who've ever seen her are a select group of stiffs and a sweet little old lady with romantic memories."
"Madame ain't the only one who's seen her and lived to tell about it," Mueller said angrily. "Ethan Roberts saw her the same day he got his big break on the soap opera. And Jack Shannon's wife saw her, too, first time she was ever in the apartment."
* * *
"We're all set for tonight." Steve flipped his cell phone closed with a quick flick of his wrist and slid it into the inside pocket of his sport coat. "We're meeting Jack Shannon and his wife right over there—" he pointed at the brick-fronted building next to the Wilshire Arms "—at Flynn's." He reached for the key dangling in the ignition of the Mustang. "Six o'clock, or as soon after that as traffic permits."
"Okay." Willow nodded her head in agreement. "Sounds good."
But something in her voice didn't sound good at all. He released the key without firing the ignition. "You doin' okay over there, sweetheart?" he asked softly. He reached out to tuck an errant lock of hair behind her ear. "You look a little shell-shocked."
Willow leaned into his touch, for just a second, as his fingers brushed the side of her face—and then tilted her head away, quickly, before she could give in to the urge to rub her cheek against his big, warm palm. "I'm fine," she said.
Steve let his hand fall to the curve of her neck. "It's a big adjustment to go from having no idea who your father is to finding out there's a good chance he might be any one of three men, all in one morning," he said, kneading gently. "Nobody would blame you for feeling a little overwhelmed."
"I'm fine," she said again, shooting him a wary glance. "Really. I'm not one of those delicate flowers who falls apart over the least little thing." At least, she hadn't been until this morning. "You don't need to worry that I'll start sniveling all over you again. I promise, I won't."
The corner of Steve's beautifully chiseled mouth quirked up in an amused little grin. "No need to be embarrassed, sweetheart. You can snivel all over me anytime you need to. It's included in my hourly fee."
"Does that hourly fee include stud service, too?" she snapped and then gasped at the look that crossed his face.
She didn't know what had made her say it, she really didn't, except that if he didn't stop touching her neck like that she was going to climb over the gearshift and crawl into his lap.
He dropped his hand from her neck. "If you're worried about what happened in my office this morning, don't be. It was a pathetic lack of control on my part," he admitted, "and I sincerely apologize for it."
"Apologize for what?" she asked, wondering what on earth he thought he had to apologize for. He had kissed her, that's all, offering comfort when she needed it.
"For taking advantage of you when you were in an emotionally vulnerable state."
"Taking advantage of me?" she said, insulted. Nobody took advantage of Willow Ryan. She didn't permit it.
"As long as you're my client you don't have to worry about my intentions," he said, stating it as plainly as he knew how. If he was going to help her, she had to trust him. And she couldn't trust him if she was afraid he was going to jump her any second. "I don't have sex with my clients."
Willow couldn't believe what she was hearing. "And just what makes you think you had the
chance of having sex with me?" she demanded acidly.
"There was no thinking involved, sweetheart. Not by me and not by you. If I'd wanted to, I could have had you this morning, buck naked and screaming with pleasure on the couch in my office. And we both know it."
Willow just stared at him with her mouth hanging inelegantly open, speechless in front of such unmitigated masculine arrogance.
"And just for the record, sweetheart... When this is all over and we've found out who your daddy is, that's just what I'm going to do."
Willow did something that afternoon that she'd never done before. She canceled two business appointments and went shopping instead. Steve was picking her up at her hotel at five-thirty to meet the Shannons at Flynn's by six and there was a lot to do before she would be ready for him.
She still couldn't believe the unmitigated, colossal gall of the man. The sheer arrogance of his attitude.
So, okay, she'd responded to his kisses with a certain amount of warmth. Big deal. She'd been upset, taken off guard; he'd been right about that. But it certainly didn't mean she wanted to go to bed with him. To lie down on that ratty leather sofa in his office "buck naked and screaming with pleasure," as he had so crudely put it.
An image of that happening flickered through her mind. All those rippling muscles, taut and trembling under her caressing fingertips; those big warm hands on her thighs; his golden body all naked and aroused, slick with passion as he worked over her. In her. Heat flooded her body.
Well, okay, maybe she wouldn't mind it all that much... under the right circumstances... if he asked nicely. But for him to say, flat out, that he could have her any time he wanted... that he
to have her as soon as it suited some outdated, antiquated notions of his, and never mind what she thought about it...
"We'll just see about that," she muttered, slamming the door to her hotel room as she headed out to hit the stores on Rodeo Drive. "By the time I get through with you, Steve Hart, you'll be on your knees, begging me to put you out of your misery."
* * *
She was dressed all in black when he picked her up at her hotel that evening. Black heels, black stockings, a snug little black dinner suit with a high, round collar and long, fitted jacket that showed off her slim figure.