Read Certified Male Online

Authors: Kristin Hardy

Certified Male (10 page)

“Hey, I agreed to do a job for a reasonable price. Then you sit there telling me you can't come up with it. That's a problem.” He paused. “Price jump? Think of it as a late fee, my man. You increased my cost of doing business. It's the law of supply and demand in action. I've still got what you'd call a supply, and you've got the demand.”

Gwen could hear the squawk of protest from the phone. “Oh, give me a break. We went over this already,” Jerry said impatiently. “You're lucky I'm still talking to you. Come up with the rest of the money and we'll do business. Otherwise, leave me alone, I'm busy.”

He was silent again, then laughed a bit. “Sure, sure, you wanna go with the installment plan, fine. You give me your installments and I'll give you mine. That's more like it. I knew you had it in you.” Suddenly he straightened. “Here? What are you doing here?” He began to pace back and forth a few steps, tension vibrating in his voice. “I told you I'd come to you. Where the hell do you get off…okay, okay,
I'll come meet you. But don't get any ideas about getting cute. The merchandise is safe and I've got a couple of guys watching my back who know what's going on. You want to see your goodies, you'll play it clean.” He hunched over the phone, now totally absorbed. “All right, all right, fifteen minutes.”

Gwen stepped hastily back toward the door as he hung up the phone. Then she stepped outside as though looking for him. Flipping his handset closed and tucking it away, he walked back toward her.

“Hey, baby.”

“You ready to party now?”

“I'm ready to do everything,” he told her with a wink as he stopped beside her. “But I gotta go meet a guy right now. I'll be back soon, though.”

“The party'll be over by then,” she said with a pout.

He slid his fingertips up and down her arm. “Maybe we can have ourselves a little party of our own, then.”

It made her skin crawl, but she didn't react. She was Nina, and Nina used the power at her disposal to get what she wanted. “Don't be gone too long.”

“Half hour,” he promised and leaned in. For a kiss, she realized, turning at the last minute enough to deflect it to her cheek.

“Hurry back,” she said, standing in the doorway and watching him walk away.

“I got to hand it to you, you don't waste time,” Del commented from behind her. There was a little edge to his voice and he stood holding their drinks and watching her steadily. “Strike out?” He stepped out into the hall to stand with Gwen.

“Not exactly,” she said without looking at him. She was a little embarrassed, but it was outweighed by equal parts of hope and anticipation. This was her first real chance to
find something out and she couldn't afford to let it pass, even if that meant looking like a get-around gal. She flicked him a distracted smile. “Thanks for the drink but I've got to go.”

Jerry was just stepping onto the escalator to the ground floor. If she hurried, she could keep him in sight.

10

I
T WASN'T HIS BUSINESS
, D
EL
thought as he watched her hurry away, the skirt of her pink dress swishing. Then again, sticking his neck into what wasn't his business was starting to become habit, at least where Nina was concerned. He watched her walk off, bright and leggy and gorgeous. He had to be out of his mind to keeping worrying about her. For a couple of minutes there, it had actually felt as if they'd reconnected. Then, the minute he'd turned his back, she was running after Jerry again.

Why couldn't he let it go? Why couldn't he let
her
go?

The problem, of course, was that he had a pretty good idea it wasn't chemistry that had her chasing Jerry, any more than it had been chemistry the night before. Something was going on.

And wherever a little hustler like Jerry was running off to at a minute's notice, it couldn't be anywhere good.

Del set the drinks on a nearby bussing tray and brushed off his hands. It really couldn't hurt for him to follow along.

 

J
ERRY GOT OFF THE ESCALATOR
on the ground floor and sauntered through the broad concourse that surrounded the casino for all the world, as if he had nothing on his mind. Maybe he didn't, Gwen thought, trailing him from as far back as she dared, focusing only on keeping his blue shirt in view. The phone call she'd overheard had sure
sounded like an assignation between uneasy allies. More to the point, it seemed to involve some sort of property that Jerry was holding. Now, maybe it was perfectly innocent and aboveboard, in which case she had no business being nearby. But maybe, just maybe, it had to do with stamps.

And if so, she couldn't run the risk of missing it.

The horizon was dark and the air was cooling off when she stepped out onto the Strip. Even on the crowded pavement she could see the royal blue of Jerry's shirt bobbing with his stride, moving away from her in the direction of the Venetian. In her magenta dress she'd have been conspicuous anywhere else, but the crowd of tourists and hawkers and working girls on the sidewalk masked her quite effectively.

The gondolas floated serenely through the fake lagoon of the Venetian as Gwen walked by, not hurrying, not dawdling, always watching the back of Jerry's neck. Keep him in sight, that was all she needed to do. Keep him in sight, see where he went and who he met. Hopefully she would learn something.

Hopefully she could figure out what it meant.

A passing pedestrian bumped into Gwen, turning her half-around. She brushed off his apologies and started forward again, then stopped.

Jerry was nowhere in sight.

Panic washed over her. She couldn't lose him now. He could have gone anywhere—into a casino, into the liquor store on the corner, into a passing cab. She hurried the last few steps to the liquor store and peeked around the corner. A block down the street he sauntered along.

Now she faced a problem. On the boulevard she was inconspicuous. On a deserted side street all it would take was one glance back from him and she'd be busted. She wasn't sure he'd buy sexual jealousy as her reason for being there,
or if she wanted to deal with the fallout of that particular excuse. Still, he didn't seem to have the least concern about being followed. It was worth taking a chance, she thought as she turned the corner herself, walking past the posters advertising specials on rum and vodka. The Dumpsters in the alley behind the store were overflowing, redolent with the stench of ripe trash.

Suddenly an arm swept around her from behind. Fear sprinted through her. A hand clamped over her mouth before she could scream. “Where do you think you're going?” someone whispered harshly.

She struggled uselessly. He was bulky but strong and dragged her effortlessly back into the alley. The hand on her mouth made it hard to breathe. She struggled against panic. Who was he? A mugger? A rapist?

“You keep being nosy, you're gonna get hurt.”

She twisted against him. Then the words he'd whispered penetrated her brain and a new fear arose.

And a new need to escape.

Galvanized, Gwen raked her heel down her attacker's shin, digging in viciously, and stomped the spike into his foot. Her reward was a bellow of pain. She twisted away from the hands that held her, stumbling toward the mouth of the alley, and opened her mouth to scream.

“You bitch, you're going to pay for that. You—”

A form hurtled toward the attacker.

It was Del.

The assailant ducked back so that his reach missed its mark. Del backed up, balanced and surged in with a pair of quick punches, balletic in their form, ferocious in their violence. “Nina, get out of here,” he yelled, ducking a right hook from the attacker.

She could only stand frozen, watching their struggle. Del struck again and a fountain of blood erupted from the
assailant's nose and mouth. Groaning, he sagged over onto the ground.

Del ran to her. “Come on, let's go.”

It was only when they were back among the lights of the Strip that the reaction hit her and she began to tremble. Del stopped once they were in front of the Doge's Palace at the Venetian and safely among the crowd.

“Are you hurt?” he demanded brusquely, his hands on her shoulders.

“No,” she said, her voice more unsteady than she'd like. “No,” she said again more strongly. “I'm fine.”

“Who was he, Nina? What did he want?”

“I don't…a mugger, I guess. I've never seen him before.”

Del paced away from her and then turned back.

Her hands began to shake. With an effort she fought it back. She was not going to fall apart.

Del studied her. “Come on, let's get you back to the hotel,” he said abruptly.

“I'm fine. I don't need your help.”

“I'm doing it for my benefit. I'm not going to be able to relax until I know you're inside and safe.”

“I don't need you to take care of me.”

“Goddammit, Nina, don't argue. He's long gone. Just admit that you missed it this time out and call yourself lucky. Now come on.”

She should have fought. She would have fought, but she was suddenly exhausted. “All right.”

 

D
EL SHUT THE DOOR BEHIND THEM
and slapped on the dead bolt. He watched Nina make her way to the sofa. The trembling that had worried him became more pronounced until she was shaking hard.

It made him feel helpless. He wished for the Nina who spit and snapped, the Nina who'd toss him out on his ass.
Anything would be better than the terrifying paleness and air of fragility that hung around her. He prayed that she wouldn't cry. That would do him in.

Turning to the armoire, he opened up the door that hid the minibar refrigerator and pulled out a small bottle of vodka. He dumped it unceremoniously into a glass and handed it to her.

“Drink it.”

She didn't question, just took an obedient swig. Instantly she broke into a coughing fit. When she'd finished wiping away the tears from choking, she seemed steadier. Though she still held the glass, knuckles showing white, she looked a little more like the Nina he knew, the one who gave as good as she got.

He drew up a chair to face her and sat down. “What's going on, Nina?” he asked flatly.

“What do you mean?”

“No more stories. The door's locked, it's just you and me. Time to stop pretending. I think that guy wanted something and it wasn't your money.” He didn't want to think about the sick, cold fear that had clutched his throat when he'd looked into the alley and seen that animal with his hands on her. Instead he concentrated on his frustration.

“I don't know what he wanted.”

“Okay, let's do this another way. How about you just tell me why you were out there to begin with?”

“What were you doing there?” she flared.

She was recovering, he noted with relief. “To keep an eye on you.”

“I don't need taking care of.”

“No?” he asked grimly. “You sure looked like it tonight.”

“I didn't need your help,” she snapped. “I'd broken free of him.”

“Yeah, you could run a long way in those shoes.”

“I've taken self-defense courses. I know how to handle myself.”

Del rose and began to pace. “Something's up. You're in some kind of a mess—it doesn't take a genius to see it.”

“I can take care of my own business.”

“Like you did back there? Goddammit, Nina, tell me what's going on.”

“Why?”

“I don't know. Maybe because I care what happens to you, although the reasons for that might be escaping me right now.” He stopped. “I can help you if you let me.”

She stared at him, eyes huge, face pale. It was as though she were trying to see inside of him. As though she were trying to decide whether to trust, even as he was trying to figure out whether she was scamming him. Finally she sighed.

“For starters, my name's not Nina.”

 

A
S THE VODKA SNAKED ITS WAY
into her system, the trembling eased. In the bright lights and comfort of her room, she could forget the way it had felt to be gripped in the darkness, the fear that had choked her. Del crossed back to sit in his chair and she moistened her lips.

How much to tell him was the question. She could trust him, but how far? She took a breath.

“I worked with Jerry in San Francisco. He managed to steal some merchandise, some very valuable merchandise, and I'm trying to get it back.” She took another belt of the vodka. It slid down more easily this time.

“Are you an investigator?”

She shook her head. “Just a person.”

“What was the merchandise?”

Gwen straightened her spine. “Stamps.”

“Stamps,” he repeated.

“Rare stamps. Some of the issues he took are one of only a handful that exist in the world.”

“Did you call the police?”

“No police,” she said quickly.

Suspicion flickered in his eyes. “Why not?”

“I've got my reasons.”

“That's not good enough.”

“It'll have to be,” she flared.

He nodded. “I'll hold on to that for now. Okay, what are they worth?”

She hesitated. “In the low seven figures.”

“What!” he said explosively. “I don't care what your reasons are, call the cops.”

“No.”

He frowned. “You're not being straight with me.”

“I am,” she protested.

“You're not. Were they stolen property to begin with?”

“No, of course not.” His eyes said he didn't entirely believe her. Should she tell him more? Could she trust him with all of it? Caution, innate to her, took over and she remained silent.

“So Jerry worked with you?”

She nodded.

“Then why doesn't he know who you are?” Again the skepticism.

“Well, he was new. I didn't have a whole lot of contact with him. I mostly worked in the investment part of the business. Jerry worked up front, in the store.” She glanced down uncomfortably. “Also, I don't usually look like this.”

“Like what?”

“You know…” She gave an embarrassed shrug. “Nina. Blond. Tight. My personal style is a little more toned down.”

“No wonder you've been so hard to figure out. I thought maybe you just had a split personality. So who's Rennie?”

She closed her eyes. “I'm not sure. It was a name written in a matchbook I found at Jerry's. It had the number of the casino here, so I figured Rennie might know where to find him.”

“Which is why you were all over me when you thought I was Rennie.”

“It's less important now that I've got an in with Jerry.”

Del nodded. “So, what happens now?”

“Get close to Jerry, find out if he's got the stamps with him. Search his room if I can. I think he's too dumb and disorganized to have done anything with most of them. He's sold a few of the more common stamps he boosted, probably for living expenses. A friend of mine confirmed it with the dealer.” She set down the vodka now, absorbed. “I think he's working with someone, someone he was going to meet tonight.”

“Which was why you were following him.”

“Bingo.”

“What about the guy who jumped you?”

“I don't know,” she said quickly.

“He looked a little too nicely dressed for a mugger.”

“Maybe. I'd think it was random except for something he said when he first grabbed me.”

“What?”

“I don't remember exactly. Something about where did I think I was going.”
You keep being nosy, you're gonna get hurt.

“A warning, maybe?”

“From who, though?”

“Maybe he's working with someone?”

“I don't know.” She tilted her head consideringly. “I thought at first that Jerry had lifted the stamps on his own. Now I wonder. When he was talking on the phone, it was almost like he was ransoming them.”

“A commission job, maybe.”

“Maybe. Then again, that conversation may have been about something totally different.”

Del nodded. “Jerry's still the key, though.”

“Absolutely. I keep thinking if I can flatter him enough and get him drinking, maybe he'll talk.”

“And maybe he'll expect a little something from you after the talking's done,” Del said with an edge to his voice.

“Nina can take care of herself.”

“I'm sure she can, but how about Gwen?” He gave her a searching look and took her hands.

“Gwen's doing okay.”

“Yeah? Well, maybe you don't have to go peddling your virtue to Jerry to get information. He and I are well on our way to becoming buds.”

“You are?”

“Yeah. I'm supposed to interview him tomorrow. Once he gets talking, who knows what he'll say, particularly after a few beers.”

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