Mr. Perfect by Linda Howard

  “Of course, dear,” said Mrs. Holland. “The big bathroom is the second door on the left in the hallway, and there’s a small bathroom opening off Sam’s bedroom.”

  Funny that they knew that when she hadn’t, but then it was difficult to explore much when one was flat of her back with a two-hundred-pound man on top of her.

  She chose the big bathroom, because it was closer, and carried her purse with her. Hurriedly she stripped off her clothes, used the facilities, then found a washcloth and washed away the evidence of four hours of sex. She used his deodorant, combed her hair—which was indeed sticking out in spikes all over her head—and this time when she dressed she put on her bra.

  Feeling more in control, she returned to the kitchen for a much-needed cup of coffee.

  “It’s terrible about your house, dear,” said Mrs. Holland, “but wonderful about Sam. I take it congratulations are in order?”

  “Eleanor,” admonished Mrs. Kulavich. “Times are different now. Young people don’t get married just because they’ve been jumping each other’s bones.”

  “That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t,” said Mrs. Holland severely.

  Jaine cleared her throat. So much had happened that she could barely comprehend it all, but the hours in bed with Sam stood out clearly in her mind. “He did ask me to marry him,” she confided. “And I said yes.” She didn’t use the cursed word “engaged.”

  “Oh, my!” Mrs. Kulavich beamed at her.

  “That’s wonderful! When’s the wedding?”

  “In about three weeks, when my parents get back from vacation.” She made a rash decision. “And everyone on the street is invited.” So their small wedding just got a little bigger; so what?

  “You’ll have to have a bridal shower,” said Mrs. Holland. “Where’s a pen and notepad? We have to make plans.”

  “But I don’t need—” Jaine began, then saw the expressions on their faces and stopped in mid-sentence. Belatedly she realized that she did indeed need a bridal shower, to help replace what had just been destroyed.

  Her chin wobbled. She quickly firmed it as one of the patrolmen stepped into the kitchen carrying two cans of cat food. “Detective Donovan sent these over,” he said.

  Grateful for the distraction, Jaine looked around for BooBoo. He wasn’t anywhere in sight. Upset at being plopped down in a strange environment, he was probably hiding. She knew all his favorite hiding places in her house, but she had no idea where he would hide in Sam’s.

  As bait, she opened one of the cans of food, then crawled through the house softly calling BooBoo’s name, pushing the open can in front of her. She finally found him behind the couch, but even with the lure of food, it took her fifteen minutes to coax him out of his hiding place. He crept out and daintily began eating, while she stroked him and took comfort in his warm, sinuous body.

  He would have to go to Shelley’s house, she thought. She couldn’t risk letting him stay with her now.

  Tears seared her eyes, and she bent her head to hide them, concentrating on the cat. When she hadn’t been at home, the maniac had taken out his rage on her possessions. While she was grateful beyond telling that she had been in Sam’s bed rather than her own, she couldn’t risk BooBoo and her dad’s car again—

  The car. Oh, my God, the car.

  She sprang to her feet, startling BooBoo so much he darted back behind the couch. “I’ll be right back,” she called to Mrs. Kulavich and Mrs. Holland, then ran outside.

  “Sam!” she yelled. “The car! Did you check the car?”

  Her yard and Sam’s were full of neighbors. Since the Viper was sitting right there in her driveway, startled faces turned toward her. She hadn’t thought to check the Viper, but as much as she loved it, her dad’s car was at least five times more valuable, and totally irreplaceable.

  Sam came out on the kitchen stoop. He glanced at the garage and jumped from the stoop. Together they ran to the garage.

  The door was still padlocked. “He couldn’t have gotten in, could he?” Jaine asked in an agonized whisper.

  “Maybe he wouldn’t have tried, since your car was sitting in the driveway. He probably thought the garage was empty. Is there another way in?”

  “No, not without knocking a hole in the wall.”

  “Then the car is okay.” He put his arm around her and walked her back toward the house. “You don’t want to open the door with all these people watching, do you?”

  She gave an emphatic shake of her head. “I’ll have to move the car,” she said, planning ahead. “David will have to take it. And Shelley will have to take BooBoo. Mom and Dad will understand, under the circumstances.”

  “We can put the car in my garage, if you want.”

  She thought about it. At least it would be close to hand, and whoever was doing this didn’t know about the car in the first place, so it should be safe. “Okay. We’ll move it when everyone leaves.”

  She didn’t look at the Viper as she walked by it, but she stopped. Staring hard at the blue lights on top of the patrol cars, she asked Sam, “Is my car okay? I can’t look.”

  “It looks okay. I don’t see any scratches or anything, and nothing’s broken.”

  She heaved a sigh of relief and sort of sagged against him. He hugged her, then sent her back to his kitchen and the care of Sadie and Eleanor.

  It was dawn before she was allowed to enter her house. She was surprised at the amount of attention given to what was essentially vandalism, but she supposed Sam was responsible for that. Of course, he didn’t think it was just vandalism.

  Neither did she.

  She couldn’t. Walking through her house, looking at the destruction, she noticed immediately how personal it all was. Her television hadn’t been touched—strange, since it was an expensive item—but all her dresses and underwear had been shredded. Her jeans and pants, however, hadn’t been touched.

  In the bedroom, her sheets and pillows and mattress had been hacked to pieces, her perfume bottles broken. In the kitchen, everything made of glass had been broken, all her plates and bowls, glasses, cups, even the heavy lead-crystal serving trays she had never used. And in the bathroom, her bath linen was untouched, but all her makeup was destroyed. Tubes were smashed, powder dumped, and all the compacts of eyeshadow and blush looked as if they had been stomped, then ground to pieces.

  “He destroyed everything feminine,” she whispered, looking around. The bed was kind of generic, but her bed linen was feminine, in soft pastels with lace-trimmed edges.

  “He hates women,” Sam agreed, coming to stand beside her. His face was grim. “A psychiatrist would have a field day with this.”

  She sighed, exhausted from lack of sleep and the sheer size of the task before her. She glanced at him; he hadn’t had any more sleep than she had, which amounted to nothing more than a couple of short naps. “Are you going to work today?”

  He gave her a startled look. “Sure. I have to get with the detective working Marci’s case and bring him up to speed on this.”

  “I’m not even going to try to work. It’ll take a week to get this mess cleaned up.”

  “No, it won’t. Call a cleaning service.” He put a thumb under her chin and tilted up her face, looking at the bruises of fatigue that shadowed her eyes. “Then go to sleep—in my bed—and let Mrs. Kulavich oversee the cleaning. She’ll be thrilled.”

  “If she is, then she’s in dire need of therapy,” Jaine said, once more surveying the wreckage of what had been her home. She yawned. “I also need to go shopping, to replace my clothes and makeup.”

  He grinned. “The kitchen stuff can wait, huh?”

  “Hey I know what’s important.” She leaned against him and looped her arms around his waist, reveling in the freedom to do so, reveling also in the way his arms automatically went around her.

  She suddenly stiffened. She couldn’t believe she hadn’t once thought about Luna and T.J. tonight. Her brain must be misfiring, that was the only explanation.

forgot about Luna and T.J.! My God, I should have called them immediately, warned them—”

  “I did,” said Sam, folding her back in his arms. “I called them last night, on my cell phone. They’re okay, just worried about you.”

  She yawned and relaxed against him once more, letting her head nestle on his chest. His heart thump-thumped in her ear. She was exhausted but couldn’t stop her thoughts from circling like buzzards around a fresh kill. If she couldn’t wind down, she would never be able to sleep.

  “How do you feel about medicinal sex?” she asked him.

  Interest lit his dark eyes. “Does it involve swallowing?”

  She chuckled against his shirt. “Not yet. Maybe tonight. What this involves now is relaxing me enough so I can sleep. Are you interested?”

  For answer, he took her hand and placed it over the fly of his jeans. He had a long, thick growth under his zipper. She hummed with pleasure as she ran her fingers up and down the length of it, feeling the tiny, spasmodic movements of his body that he couldn’t control.

  “God, you’re easy,” she said.

  “Thinking about swallowing always gets me hard.”

  Hand in hand, they walked back to his house, where he relaxed her.

  “The evidence techs didn’t find a usable fingerprint,” Sam told Roger Bernsen a couple of hours later. “But they did find a partial shoe print. Looks like a running shoe; I’m trying to get a make on the brand by the tread pattern.”

  Detective Bernsen said what Sam already knew: “He broke in intending to kill her, and trashed her place instead when she wasn’t there. You got a fix on the time?”

  “Between eight P.M. and midnight, roughly.” Mrs. Holland kept a close watch on the street, and she said she hadn’t seen a strange car or anyone unknown to her before Sam himself had arrived home. After dark, everyone was inside.

  “Lucky she wasn’t at home.”

  “Yeah.” Sam didn’t want to think about the alternative.

  “We gotta start running down those personnel files at Hammerstead.”

  “The C.E.O. is my next call. I don’t want anyone else knowing that we’re checking the files. He can have them pulled without anyone questioning him. Maybe they can be copied to our computers so we don’t have to risk going there.”

  Roger grunted. “By the way, the M.E. has released Ms. Dean’s body. I’ve contacted her sister.”

  “Thanks. We need to have someone videotaping the funeral.”

  “You think he’ll be there?”

  “I’m betting on it,” Sam said.


  Corin hadn’t been able to sleep, but he didn’t feel tired. Frustration gnawed at him. Where had she been?

  She would have told him, he thought. Sometimes, most of the time, he didn’t like her at all, but sometimes she could be nice. If she had been feeling nice, she would have told him.

  He didn’t know what to think about her. She didn’t dress like a whore the way Marci Dean had, but men always looked at her anyway, even when she was wearing pants. And when she was being nice, he liked her, but when she cut people to shreds with her tongue, he wanted to hit her and hit her, and just keep hitting her until her head was all soft and she couldn’t do those things to him anymore …. But was that her, or Mother? He frowned, trying to remember. Sometimes things got so confused. Those pills must still be affecting him.

  Men looked at Luna, too. She was always sweet to him, but she wore a lot of makeup and Mother thought her skirts were always too short. Short skirts made men think nasty thoughts, Mother said. No good woman ever wore short skirts.

  Maybe Luna just acted sweet. Maybe she was really bad. Maybe she was the one who had said those things, and made fun of him, and caused Mother to hurt him.

  He closed his eyes and thought of how Mother had hurt him, and a tingle of excitement went through him. He ran his hand down his front, the way he wasn’t supposed to, but it felt so good that sometimes he did it anyway.

  No. That was bad. And when Mother had hurt him, she had just been showing him how bad that thing was. He shouldn’t enjoy it.

  But the night hadn’t been a total waste. He had a new lipstick. He took off the top and twisted the base so the vulgar thing slid out. It wasn’t bright red like Marci’s, it was more of a pinkish color, and he didn’t like it nearly as well. He painted his lips, scowled at his reflection in the mirror, then wiped off the color in disgust.

  Maybe one of the others would have a lipstick that suited him better.

  Laurence Strawn, C.E.O. of Hammerstead Technology, was a man with a boisterous laugh and a knack for seeing the big picture. He wasn’t good with details, but then, he didn’t need to be.

  That morning he had received a call from a Warren detective named Donovan. Detective Donovan had been very persuasive. No, they didn’t have a warrant to search Hammerstead’s personnel records, and they preferred to keep this as quiet as possible. What he was asking for was cooperation in catching a murderer before he could kill again, and they had a hunch he worked at Hammerstead.

  Why was that? Mr. Strawn had asked, and was told about the phone call to T.J. Yother’s cell phone, whose number he wouldn’t have known was hers unless he had access to certain information about her. Since they were fairly certain Marci Dean had known her killer and that the same man was the one who had called T.J.’s cell phone, then it followed that they both knew him, that, in fact, all four of the friends knew him. That made it highly probable that he worked at Hammerstead with them.

  Mr. Strawn’s immediate reaction was that he didn’t want this leaking to the press. He was, after all, a C.E.O. His second, more thought-out reaction, was that he would do whatever possible to stop this maniac from killing more of his employees.

  “What do you want me to do?” he asked.

  “If we have to, we’ll come to Hammerstead to go over the files, but we’d prefer not to alert anyone that we’re looking. Can you access the files and attach them to an E-mail to me?”

  “The files are on a separate system that isn’t online. I’ll have them copied to a CD for my files, then send it to you. What’s your E-mail address?” Unlike a lot of chief executive officers and corporate presidents, Laurence Strawn knew his way around computers. He’d had to become proficient just to understand what the loonies on the first two floors were doing.

  “T.J. Yother works in human resources,” he added as he copied down Detective Donovan’s E-mail address, another talent he had, that of doing two things at once. “I’ll have her do it. That way we know there won’t be a leak.”

  “Good idea,” said Sam. With that accomplished with surprising ease—he thought he’d like Laurence Strawn—he turned his attention to the partial shoe print the techs had lifted from Jaine’s bathroom floor, where the bastard had stepped in the ruins of her makeup and left a pretty good imprint behind. He just hoped it was enough to identify the style. O. J. Simpson aside, when they caught this guy, it would help if they could prove he owned the type of shoe that had made the print, and in the same size. It would be even better if there were still little clumps of makeup caught in the treads.

  He spent most of the morning on the phone. Who said detective work wasn’t dangerous and exciting?

  Last night had been a little more dangerous and exciting than he liked, he thought grimly. He didn’t like playing “what if,” but in this case he couldn’t help it. What if he had been called away? What if Jaine hadn’t been late, he hadn’t been worried, and they hadn’t argued? They might have parted with a good-night kiss, Jaine going to her house alone. Considering the destruction of her house, he shuddered to think what would have happened if she had been there. Marci Dean had been both taller and heavier than Jaine, and she hadn’t been able to fight off her attacker, so the chances of Jaine doing so were practically nil.

  He sat back in his chair and laced his fingers behind his head, staring at the ceiling and thinking. Something was getting by him here, but he couldn’t put his finger on
it. Not yet, anyway; sooner or later, it would come to him, because he wouldn’t be able to stop worrying it until he found the answer. His sister Doro said he was a cross between a snapping turtle and a rat terrier: once he had his teeth in something, he never let go. Of course, Doro hadn’t meant it as a compliment.

  Thinking of his Doro reminded him of the rest of his family, and the news he had to break. He scribbled on his notepad: Tell Mom about Jaine. This was going to come as a big surprise to them, because the last they’d heard he wasn’t even dating anyone regularly. He grinned; hell, he still wasn’t. He was skipping that part, as well as the engagement, and just going straight to marriage, which was probably the best way to get Jaine there.

  But the family stuff would have to wait. Right now he had dual priorities: catch a killer, and keep Jaine safe. Those two tasks didn’t leave time for anything else.

  Jaine woke up in Sam’s bed a little after one P.M., not really rested but with her batteries recharged enough that she felt ready to take on the next crisis. After dressing in jeans and a T-shirt, she went next door to check on the cleaning progress. Mrs. Kulavich was there, walking from room to room to make certain no shortcuts were taken. The two women who were doing the cleaning seemed to take her supervision in stride.

  They certainly were efficient, Jaine thought. The bedroom and bathroom were already clean; the savaged mattress and box spring were gone, the shreds of cloth swept up and put in trash bags that sat bulging beside the stoop. Before going to sleep, she had called her insurance agent and found that her homeowners’ insurance, so recently converted from renters’ insurance, would cover part of the replacement cost of the household goods. Her clothes weren’t covered at all.

  “Your insurance agent was here not an hour ago,” Mrs. Kulavich said. “He looked around and took pictures, and was going to the police department to get a copy of the report. He said he didn’t think there would be any problem.”

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