Mr. Perfect by Linda Howard

  Neither T.J. nor Luna had worked the day before, either. They had arrived on her doorstep a little after eight A.M., their eyes in the same condition hers had been. Shelley had whacked off more slices from her cucumber, then set about making more pancakes, which were as comforting to her friends as they had been to Jaine.

  Shelley had never met Marci, but she was willing to listen to them talk about her, which they had done all day long. They had cried a lot, laughed some, and wasted a lot of time hazarding theories about what had happened, since Brick was undeniably in the clear. They knew they weren’t going to stumble on The Truth, but talking about it helped. Marci’s death was so unbelievable that only by endlessly rehashing it could they gradually come to terms with losing her.

  For once, she wasn’t early. Mr. deWynter was already there, and he immediately asked her to step into his office.

  Jaine sighed. She might be head of payroll, but unfortunately the position carried no power, only responsibility. By leaving work early on Monday and not working at all on Tuesday, she had left them short-handed. DeWynter must have been sweating, wondering if they would get everything finished in time; people tended to get unreasonable when their paychecks didn’t arrive on schedule.

  She was prepared to accept his criticism, so she was taken aback when he said, “I want to tell you how sorry I am about your friend. That’s an awful thing to happen.”

  She had sworn she wouldn’t cry at work today, but deWynter’s unexpected sympathy almost did her in. She blinked to hold back the tears. “Thank you,” she said. “It is awful. And I want to apologize for leaving the department in the lurch on Monday—”

  He shook his head. “I understand. We put in some extra hours, but no one complained. When is the funeral service scheduled?”

  “It hasn’t been, yet. The autopsy—”

  “Oh, of course, of course. Please let me know when it will be; a lot of people here at Hammerstead would like to attend.”

  Jaine nodded her promise, and escaped back to her own desk and a pile of work.

  She had known the day would be tough, but she hadn’t anticipated quite how tough. Gina and all the others in her department had to extend their sympathies, of course, which almost had her weeping again. Since she didn’t have a cucumber with her, she had to fight the tears all day long.

  Without it being planned, both T.J. and Luna showed up at lunch time. “Railroad Pizza?” T.J. asked, and they all got in T.J.’s car for the short drive.

  They had just received their vegetarian pizzas when Jaine remembered she hadn’t told them about the crank phone call she had received just before they arrived the day before. “I finally got one of those ‘Which one are you?’ calls,” she said.

  “Aren’t they creepy?” Luna took an unenthusiastic bite of pizza. Her lovely face looked as if she had aged ten years in the last two days. “Since the rest of us have had at least two of them, I’m surprised it took him so long to get to you.”

  “Well, I have had a lot of hang-ups on my answering machine, but I just assumed they were from reporters.”

  “Probably. God knows we’ve all had plenty of those.” T.J. rubbed her forehead. “My head is pounding. I think it finally really hit me last night when I got home, and I cried until I was sick. Galan—”

  Jaine looked up. “Yes, how is the Galan situation? Is he still bunking down in a motel?”

  “No. He was at work Monday when we heard, of course, but he had called several times and left messages for me, and he came home that night. I guess the situation is still up in the air. What with Marci, I haven’t felt like hashing things out with him. He’s been pretty quiet, but… considerate, too. Maybe he’s hoping I’ll forget.” She took an almost vicious bite of pizza.

  “Guess there’s not much chance of that,” Jaine said dryly, and Luna smiled.

  “Not in this lifetime,” T.J. said. “But let’s talk about something interesting, like Sam.” She got a mischievous sparkle in her eyes. “I can’t believe you thought that sexy hunk was a drug-dealing drunk.”

  Jaine found that she, too, could smile today. “What can I say? He cleans up well. You should see him when he’s wearing old, torn clothes, hasn’t shaved, and is in a really bad mood.”

  “Those dark eyes … Wow.” Luna fanned herself with her hand. “Plus he has a really nice set of shoulders, in case you haven’t noticed.”

  Jaine refrained from saying that she had noticed everything about Sam. They didn’t need to know about the kitchen-window episode. Funny, she thought, she had regaled them almost every day with tales about her fractious encounters with him when she still thought he was a drunken jerk, but once things started getting more personal between them, she had stopped talking about him.

  “He’s hot for you, too,” T.J. added. “That man wants to jump your bones. Take my word for it.”

  “Maybe,” Jaine said vaguely She didn’t want to discuss how badly her bones wanted to be jumped by him, or how close they had already been to making love.

  “You don’t have to be psychic to know that,” Luna told T.J., her tone wry. “He came right out and said so.”

  T.J. laughed. “So he did. He isn’t shy, is he?”

  No, shy was one thing Sam Donovan definitely wasn’t. Brash, cocky, arrogant, smart, sexy, sweet—those words described him down to his bones. She doubted he had a single shy gene in his body, thank God.

  T.J.’s cell phone rang. “It’s probably Galan,” she said, sighing as she fished it out of her purse. She flipped it open and punched the receive button. “Hello?”

  Jaine watched as her face turned red. “How did you get this number?” she snapped, and punched the off button. “Bastard,” she muttered as she returned the phone to her purse.

  “I take it that wasn’t Galan,” Jaine said.

  “It was that creep.” T.J.’s voice quivered with anger. “I’d like to know how he got my cell number, because I don’t give it out a lot.”

  “Is there an information for cell numbers, maybe?” Luna asked.

  “The account’s in Galan’s name, not mine, so how would he know I’m the one who carries the phone?”

  “What did he say?” asked Jaine.

  “The usual ‘Which one are you?’ crap. Then he said, ‘Marci.’ Just her name. Damn him, that’s a sick thing to do.”

  Jaine put down her slice of pizza. She was suddenly cold all over, the fine hairs at the nape of her neck standing up. My God, what if those phone calls had something to do with Marci’s murder? Maybe it was a stretch, but maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was some weirdo who really, really hated them because of the List, and now he was coming after them one by one—

  She was hyperventilating. T.J. and Luna were both staring at her. “What’s wrong?” Luna asked in alarm.

  “I just had the most horrible thought,” Jaine whispered. “What if he’s the one who killed Marci? What if he’s after us all?”

  Twin expressions of pure shock crossed their faces. “No way,” Luna said in instant rejection.

  “Why not?”

  “Because! That’s so crazy. Things like that don’t happen. Well, maybe to celebrities, but not to normal people.”

  “Marci was murdered,” Jaine said, still unable to get much volume to her voice. “Was that normal?” She shivered. “The phone calls at home I didn’t think much about, but you’re right, T.J., how did he get your cell phone number? I’m sure there are ways, but most people wouldn’t know how. Are we being stalked?”

  Both of them stared at her again.

  “Now I’ m scared,” Luna said after a moment. “You live alone, I live alone, Galan doesn’t get home until almost midnight, and Marci was alone.”

  “But how would he know that? I mean, Brick was living with her until just the day before,” T.J. protested.

  Her intuition gave Jaine another kick in the gut. She thought she was going to be ill. “It was in the newspaper—’no sign of forced entry.’ I heard Sam talking on the phone. They thought it
was Brick because he was her boyfriend and he had a key, but it wasn’t Brick, so they think it was someone else Marci knew. She let him in and he killed her.” She swallowed. “It’s someone we all know.”

  “Oh, my God.” Luna clapped both hands over her mouth, her eyes wide with horror.

  T.J. dropped her slice of pizza. She looked sick, too, and suddenly afraid. She tried for a shaky laugh. “We’re scaring ourselves, like little kids telling ghost stories around a campfire.”

  “Good. If we’re scared, we’ll be more careful. I’m going to call Sam as soon as I get back to the office—”

  T.J. took her cell phone out of her purse and turned it on. “Here,” she said, extending it across the table to Jaine. “Call him now.”

  Jaine dug in her purse for the scrap of paper on which he had written both of his numbers. Her hands were shaking as she tried his cell phone first. The connection was made and a ring sounded in her ear. Twice. Three times—


  She gripped the little phone hard with both hands. “This is Jaine. Sam—we’re scared. We’ve all been getting crank calls since the List came out, but I haven’t mentioned it because they weren’t threatening or anything, he just asks which one we are—you know, A, B, C, or D—but he just called T.J. on her cell phone and said Marci’s name. How did he get T.J.’s number? The phone’s in her husband’s name, so how would he know T.J. is the one with the phone instead of Galan? I heard you say Marci probably knew her killer and let him in the house, and whoever called T.J. knows her because otherwise how would he have her number, and I know I sound hysterical, but I’m scared and I wish you would tell me I’m letting my imagination run away with me—”

  “Where are you?” he asked quietly.

  “Railroad Pizza. Please tell me I’m letting my imagination run away with me.”

  “I think you need to get Caller ID,” he said, his tone still too even. “If T.J. and Luna don’t have it, tell them to get it. Today. Call the phone company from work to get it started, and stop on the way home to buy the units.”

  She took a deep breath. “Okay. Caller ID.”

  “Do you have a cell phone? Or Luna?”

  “No, just T.J.”

  “Both of you need to get one, and keep it with you, so you’ll have a way to call for help if you can’t get to a land line. And I mean with you, in a pocket, not in your purse or car.”

  “Cell phones. Check.” They were going to have several stops on the way home, she thought.

  “Did anything about his voice sound familiar?”

  “No, he whispers, but it’s kind of a loud whisper. It sounds funny.”

  “Any background noise that you can identify?”

  She relayed the question to T.J. and Luna. They shook their heads. “No, nothing.”

  “Okay. Where do T.J. and Luna live?”

  She gave him their addresses. T.J. lived in Mount Clemens, Luna in Royal Oak, all towns on the north side of Detroit.

  Sam swore. “Royal Oak is in Oakland County. That’s four different departments in two different counties who need to get a heads-up on this.”

  “You were supposed to tell me I’m crazy,” she said in a shaky voice, though somehow she had known he wouldn’t.

  “Marci’s dead,” he said bluntly. “All four of you have gotten the same crank call. Do you want to trust your life to coincidence?”

  Put in those terms, maybe she wasn’t crazy after all. She took a deep breath. “What should we do?”

  “Tell T.J. and Luna that, until we find out who’s making these calls, not to let anyone in their houses except family, don’t get in a car with anyone except family, not even if they have a breakdown and someone offers a ride. Keep their doors and windows locked, and if either of them has an automatic garage door, make sure no one gets inside when the door raises.”

  “How long will it take to find this creep?”

  “Depends. If he’s just a dumb fuck making phone calls, the Caller ID may nab him, or the call return number. If not, we’ll put a trace on your lines.”

  “But if he’s a dumb f—” She caught herself before she said the word. “If he’s a dumb you-know-what, how did he get T.J.’s cell phone number?”

  “Like you said. He knows her.”

  As T.J. parked in front of Hammerstead, they all looked out at the big brick building. “It’s probably someone who works here,” Jaine said.

  “It would almost have to be,” Luna said. “Some jerk who thinks it’s funny to scare us.”

  “Sam said we shouldn’t trust our lives to coincidence. Until we know better, we should assume that the guy who’s making the phone calls is the same guy who killed Marci.”

  “I can’t believe we work with a murderer,” T.J. said faintly. “I just can’t. It’s too unbelievable. Jerks, yes. Just look at Bennett Trotter. Marci hated his guts.”

  “So do we all.” Bennett Trotter was the resident slimeball. A twinge of memory made Jaine frown as she tried to nail it down. “The night we came up with the List… remember, Marci was telling us about Kellman grabbing her ass? Wasn’t it Bennett who had something to say about it?”

  “I think so,” T.J. said, but doubtfully. “I don’t really remember.”

  “I do,” said Luna. “Bennett said something about taking Kellman’s place if Marci was that hard up.”

  “He’s a bottom feeder, but I can’t see him killing anyone,” T.J. said, shaking her head.

  “The point is, we don’t know, so we have to assume everyone is guilty. When Sam finds out who has been making the calls, if whoever it is has an alibi, then we can relax. Until then, we’re on guard against everyone.” Jaine wanted to shake T.J.; she just couldn’t seem to grasp that they might be in danger, too. They probably weren’t; she hoped they weren’t. But the whole thing with the telephone call today took the crank calls to another level, and she was deeply uneasy. Part of her agreed with T.J.; the whole supposition was too fantastic, too unbelievable. She was simply letting her imagination run away with her. Another, more primal, part of her brain said that Marci was dead, murdered, and whoever killed her was still out there. That seemed even more unbelievable than the other, yet it was true.

  She tried another tactic. “If Sam thinks we should be extra careful, that’s good enough for me. He knows a lot more about these things than we do.”

  “That’s true,” T.J. said. “If he’s worried, we should do what he said.”

  Jaine mentally rolled her eyes. After their first exposure to Sam, T.J., Luna, and even Shelley had all begun acting as if he were the Grand Pooh-Bah. Well, whatever worked; what mattered was that they were cautious.

  They walked together into the building, then parted to go to their different departments. Mindful of Sam’s instructions, she called the phone company to arrange for Caller ID and all the other bells and whistles, including call forwarding. It occurred to her that it might come in handy to be able to transfer her incoming calls to, say, Sam’s house.

  Sam called Detective Bernsen. “Roger, my gut tells me we have a bigger problem than we thought.”

  “How’s that?”

  “You know that Ms. Dean was one of the List Ladies, right?”

  “Yeah, what about it, other than giving the reporters something to howl about?”

  “Turns out all four of the ladies have been getting crank calls from the same guy. He asks them which one they are.”

  “Which one?”

  “Yeah. Have you read the List?”

  “I haven’t had the pleasure. My wife has quoted parts of it to me, unfortunately.”

  “The four women are identified only as A, B, C, and D. So this guy asks them which one they are, like it’s important to him. Today while they were at lunch, he called on T.J.’s cell phone and asked the usual question, then said Ms. Dean’s name. No threats or anything like that, just her name.”

  “Huh,” said Roger, which meant he was thinking.

  “T.J.’s cell phone is in her h
usband’s name, so most people would think he’s the one who carries it. This guy not only knew the number, he knew T.J. is the one with the phone.”

  “So he’s either familiar with the ladies or he knows the husband.”

  “Why would a husband give his wife’s cell phone number to another man?”

  “Good point. Okay, the caller knows the ladies. Huh.”

  “The odds are Marci Dean knew the killer. She opened her door and let him in, right?”

  “Right. She had a peephole in the door. She could see whoever came knocking.”

  “The crank caller disguises his voice, speaks only in a whisper.”

  “Meaning they might recognize his voice if he spoke normally. You think the killer and the crank caller are the same guy?”

  “Either that or it’s a big coincidence.”

  “Son of a bitch.” Like most cops, Roger wasn’t big on coincidence. “Where does this guy know all of them from? They work together or something?”

  “Yeah, at Hammerstead Technology, just off I-696 at Southfield. He probably works there, too.”

  “He’s someone with access to their personal information. That should narrow it down.”

  “Hammerstead develops computer technology. A lot of people there would know how to access the personnel files.”

  “It couldn’t be easy, could it?” Roger asked wearily.

  “My gut tells me something about the List set him off, and he’s going to be coming after the other three.”

  “Jesus. You may be right. You got their names and addresses?”

  “T.J. Yother, Mount Clemens, husband’s name is Galan. Luna Scissum, Royal Oak, unmarried and lives alone.” He gave Roger the street addresses. “Jaine Bright, the third one, is my next-door neighbor. She’s single, too.”

  “Huh. Is she your lady friend?”


  “So you’re dating one of the List Ladies? Man, that takes balls.” Roger caught his own joke and laughed.

  “You have no idea.” Sam grinned, thinking of Jaine and her stubborn chin with that cute little dent in it, and her almost-dimples and sparkling blue eyes. She attacked life, rather than simply letting it happen; he’d never before met anyone so annoying and funny and sharp. He had major plans for her, the most immediate of which was getting her under him. No way would he let anything happen to her, even if he had to quit his job and become her twenty-four-hour-a-day bodyguard.

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