Mr. Perfect by Linda Howard

  Shelley waved her hand dismissively. “Don’t worry about that. We usually stay up late while the kids are out of school.”

  “What about the reporters?” T.J. asked. “We won’t have any peace if they’re still swarming the place.”

  “I doubt they would hang around forever,” Sam said. “They’d like an interview, yeah, but they can get statements from other people. More than likely, since you weren’t at home today, they’ll call instead of camping out in your yard.”

  “Then I would like to go home,” T.J. said, standing. She hugged Shelley. “Thanks a million. You were a lifesaver today.”

  Shelley returned the hug. “Any time. Come back tomorrow, if you don’t go to work. Whatever you do, don’t stay home alone!”

  “Thanks. I may take you up on it, but… I think I’ll go to work tomorrow. Getting back into the routine will help take my mind off things.”

  Jaine said, “I think Sam and I will go home, too. He looks as exhausted as I feel.”

  “Are you going to work tomorrow?” T.J. asked.

  “I don’t know. Maybe. I’ll call and let you know.”

  “Trilby,” T.J. called, and the dog jumped up, bright eyes sparkling and her entire body wagging in enthusiasm. “C’mon, girl, let’s go home.”

  Trilby barked and scampered around T.J.’s legs. Galan leaned down to pet her, and she licked his hand. “Where’s your leash?” he asked, and she dashed off to find it. Usually the dog’s antics could make T.J. laugh, but tonight she couldn’t manage even a smile.

  On the drive home, T.J. sat staring out the window. “You didn’t have to leave work early,” she said. “I’m fine.”

  “I wanted to be with you,” he repeated, and drew a deep breath. He would prefer to have this talk once they were home, where he could put his arms around her, but maybe now was the best time. At least she couldn’t walk away. “I’m sorry,” he said softly.

  She didn’t glance at him. “For what?”

  “For being an asshole; for being a stupid asshole. I love you more than anything or anyone else on earth, and I can’t stand the thought of losing you.”

  “What about your girlfriend?” She made the word sound so immature, as if he were a horny teenager who couldn’t see past the moment.

  He winced. “I know you don’t believe me, but I swear I haven’t been that stupid.”

  “Exactly how stupid have you been?”

  She had never let him get away with anything, he remembered. Even in high school, T.J. would pin him to the wall if he tried to evade telling her whatever she wanted to know.

  Keeping his eyes on the road, because he was afraid to look at her, he said, “Flirting stupid. And kissing stupid. But no more than that. Not ever.”

  “Not even groping?” Her tone said she didn’t believe him.

  “Not ever,” he repeated firmly. “I … Damn it, T.J., it didn’t feel right, and I don’t mean anything physical. She wasn’t you. I don’t know; maybe I let my ego get the best of me, because I kind of liked the thrill, but it was wrong and I knew it.”

  “Who exactly is ‘she’?” T.J. asked.

  Saying her name took every ounce of courage he had, because putting an actual name to the woman personalized it, made it real. “Xandrea Conaway.”

  “Have I met her?”

  Galan shook his head, then realized she still wasn’t looking at him. “No, I don’t think so.”

  “Xandrea,” she repeated. “She sounds like a mixed drink.”

  He knew better than to say anything the least bit nice about Xandrea. Instead he said, “I do love you. Yesterday when you found out about Luna and I realized—” His voice cracked. He had to swallow before he could continue. “When I realized you’re in danger, it was like a slap in the face.”

  “Being hunted by a psycho killer is kind of an attention getter,” she said dryly.

  “Yeah.” He decided to go for broke and asked, “Will you give me another chance?”

  “I don’t know,” she said, and his heart sank. “I told you I wouldn’t be hasty or do anything drastic, and I won’t. My attention is a little splintered right now, so I think we should just shelve this discussion for a while.”

  Okay, he thought. That was a swing and a miss, but he hadn’t struck out yet.

  “May I sleep with you?”

  “You mean have sex?”

  “No. I mean sleep with you. In our bed. I’d like to make love with you, too, but if you won’t do that, will you at least let me sleep with you?”

  She thought about it for so long that he began to think he’d swung at and missed another ball. Finally she said, “Okay.”

  He heaved a sigh of relief. She wasn’t brimming over with enthusiasm, but she wasn’t kicking him out, either. It was a chance. They had a lot of years together, and that was holding them together when couples without much of a history might already have called it quits. He couldn’t expect to undo in one night the accumulated damage he had wrought over the past two years.

  But she had hung in there with him, so he wasn’t going to quit now, no matter how surly she got, or how long it took him to make her believe he loved her. The most important thing was keeping her alive, even if she walked out on him afterward. He didn’t know if he could stand losing her, but he knew he sure as hell couldn’t stand burying her.

  “I’m so tired,” Jaine said. “You must be exhausted.”

  “I’ve been running on coffee all day long,” Sam replied. “The jolt is wearing off, though. Want to make it an early night?”

  She yawned. “I don’t think I have a choice. I doubt I could stay awake if I tried.” She rubbed her forehead. “I’ve had a splitting headache all day, and nothing I’ve taken has been able to touch it.”

  “Damn,” he said mildly. “We aren’t even married yet, and already you’re having headaches.”

  That earned a faint smile.

  “Did Shelley whip out a giant cucumber today?”

  The smile grew a little, though it was tinged with sadness. “Yeah. Every time we closed our eyes, she plastered us with cucumber slices. I don’t know if they work, but they feel good.” She paused. “Did you make any progress today?”

  He grunted in disgust. “All I’ve done is tread water. The computer didn’t turn up anything, so Bernsen and I have been going over the files to see if we missed something. Do you remember any harassment complaints, or any trouble between two employees?”

  “I remember when Sada Whited caught her husband fooling around with Emily Hearst and they had a brawl in the parking lot, but I doubt that’s what you’re looking for.” She yawned again. “Harassment complaints, huh? I can’t remember any. Bennett Trotter probably should have a sexual harassment complaint filed against him every day, but I don’t think anyone has. And he has dark hair.”

  “We haven’t ruled out brunettes. We haven’t ruled out anyone. Marci could have picked up that blond hair from someone she brushed against in the grocery store. Tell me more about Bennett Trotter.”

  “He’s a jerk, always making comments that he thinks are sexy, but he’s the only one who thinks they are. You know the type.”

  He did. He wondered if Bennett Trotter could provide proof of his whereabouts on the two days in question.

  “There are several people whom no one likes,” Jaine continued. “My boss, Ashford deWynter, is one. He was in a real snit over the List, until the company decided to go with the free publicity, then he mellowed out.”

  Sam added Ashford deWynter to his mental list. “Anyone else?”

  “I don’t know everyone. Let’s see. No one likes Leah Street, but I don’t guess she counts.”

  The name was familiar. It took him only a second to place it. “She’s the drama queen.”

  “And a pain in the rear. I’m glad she’s not in my department. T.J. has to put up with her every day.”

  “Anyone else besides Trotter and deWynter?”

  “No one that sticks out. I remember a guy named C
ary or something like that who was really bent out of shape when the List first came out, because some of the women were ragging him about it, but he wasn’t violent about it, just sulky.”

  “Can you find out his name for certain?”

  “Sure. Dominica Flores was one of the women needling him. I’ll call her in the morning.”

  It was strange how altered everything was, T.J. thought the next morning as she entered Hammerstead. Marci and Luna weren’t here. They would never be here again. As difficult to accept as Marci’s death was, Luna’s was impossible. T.J. still couldn’t get her mind around it. Luna had been so damn bright and sweet, how could anyone want to kill her over a stupid list?

  The killer was here in this building, she thought. She might walk past him in the hallway. Maybe coming to work wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but in a weird way she had wanted to be here because he was here. Maybe he would say something, though she knew that possibility was remote. Maybe she would catch an expression on his face—something, anything, that would help them figure out who he was. She wasn’t any kind of Sherlock Holmes, but she wasn’t stupid, either.

  Jaine had always been the most intrepid of their group, but T.J. figured she could be a little daring, too. Coming to work today felt daring. Jaine wasn’t coming in; the headache she’d had yesterday hadn’t let up, and she was spending another day with Shelley, being pampered.

  T.J. had to admit she also liked the idea of Galan worrying about her. It was silly, maybe even stupid, to come to work when she knew he was alarmed about it, but he had taken her for granted for so long that his present intense concern was like balm to her hurt feelings. He had surprised her last night with what he said. Maybe they could make it together. She wasn’t going to rush into accepting his apology any more than she had rushed into a divorce when their marriage first started crumbling, but she did love him, and for the first time in a long while, she thought he might love her, too.

  Luna and Shamal had finally worked out their differences, too, right before she had been killed. She had had two days of happiness with him. Two days, when she should have had a lifetime.

  T.J. felt a sudden chill. Did she herself have only two days with Galan, to work on their fragile truce?

  No. The killer was not going to get to her, the way he had to Marci and Luna. She couldn’t imagine how Luna could have let him into her apartment the way the police thought. Maybe he had already been inside, waiting for her. Sam said they hadn’t found any sign of forced entry, but maybe he could pick locks or something. Maybe he had somehow gotten his hands on a key. She didn’t know how he could have, but he had to have gotten in somehow.

  If Galan was at work when she got home this afternoon, she thought, she wasn’t going inside the house alone. She would get a neighbor to walk through the house with her. And she had Trilby for added security; nothing got past the little dog. Cockers were very protective of their families. Sometimes her barking was a nuisance, but now T.J. was thankful she was so alert.

  Leah Street looked up in surprise when T.J. entered the office. “I didn’t expect you today,” she said.

  T.J. hid her own surprise. Leah’s clothing was never flattering, but she was at least neat. Today she looked as if she had grabbed something off the floor. She wore a skirt and blouse, but the skirt sagged on one side and the hem of her slip showed. T.J. hadn’t realized anyone still wore slips when they didn’t have to, especially in the late-summer heat. Leah’s blouse was wrinkled, and there was a stain on the front. Even her hair, which was usually so immaculate, looked as if she hadn’t combed it before coming to work.

  Realizing Leah was watching her expectantly, T.J. pulled her mind back to what had been said.

  “I thought working would help. You know, the routine of it.”

  “Routine.” Leah nodded, as if the word was somehow profound.

  Weird. But then, Leah had always been a couple of french fries short of a Happy Meal. Nothing drastic, just a little … off.

  From what T.J. could tell, Leah was really off today, occupying her own little world. She hummed, she filed her nails, she answered a few calls. She sounded rational, at least, if not very effective. “I don’t know, I’ll get back to you,” seemed to be her phrase of the day.

  A little after nine she disappeared, and came back ten minutes later with dirt stains on her blouse. Coming over to T.J., she leaned down and whispered, “I’m having a problem getting to some files. Will you help me move some boxes?”

  What files? What boxes? Almost all their files were on computer. T.J. started to ask what she was talking about, but Leah gave a quick, embarrassed look around the office as if she was in some difficulty that had nothing to do with files, and didn’t want the others to know.

  Why me? T.J. thought, but sighed and said, “Sure.”

  She followed Leah to the elevator. “Where are these files?” she asked.

  “Downstairs. In the Storage room.”

  “I didn’t know anything was actually stored in ‘Storage,’” T.J. joked, but Leah didn’t seem to get it.

  “Of course there is,” she said, sounding bewildered.

  The elevator was empty, and they didn’t meet anyone in the first floor hallway, which wasn’t surprising considering the time of morning. Everyone was in his or her office, the computer nerds were probably having a spitball war, and it wasn’t time yet for the morning coffee break, when people started moving around more.

  They went down the narrow, puke green hallway, and Leah opened the door marked “Storage,” stepping aside for T.J. to enter ahead of her. T.J. wrinkled her nose at the smell, dank and sour, as if no one had been in there for quite a while. It was also dark.

  “Where’s the light switch?” she asked, not stepping inside.

  Something hard hit her in the back, shoving her forward into the dark, smelly room. T.J. sprawled on the rough concrete floor, scraping skin off her hands and knees. Sudden horrified realization exploded in her mind, and she managed to roll to the side and scramble to her feet as a long metal pipe came whistling down.

  She screamed, or she thought she did. She wasn’t certain, because her heartbeat was thunderous in her ears and she couldn’t hear anything else. She tried to grab the pipe, and wrestled briefly for possession of it. But Leah was strong, very strong, and with a hard shove knocked T.J. off her feet again.

  T.J. heard that whistling noise again; then lights exploded in her head and she didn’t hear anything else.


  A door opened out in the hallway. Corin froze, listening to the heavy footsteps as they crossed the hall; then there was the sound of another door opening and closing. It was someone in maintenance, he realized. If the man had looked in this direction and seen the open door of the storage room, he would certainly have come to investigate.

  Corin was agonized. Why hadn’t he thought of the possibility that one of the maintenance workers could be nearby? He should have; he hadn’t been careful enough, and Mother would be angry.

  He looked at the woman lying on the dirty concrete floor, barely visible in the light coming through the open door of the storage room. Was she breathing? He couldn’t tell, and he was afraid to make any noise now.

  He hadn’t done this right at all. He hadn’t planned well, and that frightened him, because when he didn’t do something perfectly, Mother was enraged. He had to please her, had to think of something he could do, some way he could make up for his mistakes.

  The other one. The one with the smart mouth. He had made a mistake with her, too, but it wasn’t his fault she hadn’t been at home, was it? Would Mother understand?

  No. Mother never accepted excuses.

  He would have to go back and get it right.

  But what would he do if she wasn’t at home, again? She wasn’t here; he knew, because he had checked. Where could she be?

  He would find her. He knew who her parents were and where they lived, he knew the names of her brother and sister, and their addresses.
He knew a lot of things about her. He knew a lot of things about everyone who worked here, because he loved reading their private files. He could write down their social security numbers and dates of birth and find out all sorts of things about them on his computer at home.

  She was the last one. He couldn’t wait. He needed to find her now, needed to finish the task Mother had given him.

  Very quietly he laid down the pipe beside the unmoving woman, and crept out of the storage room. He closed the door as silently as possible, then tiptoed away.

  Detective Wayne Satran stopped by Sam’s desk with a fax. “Here’s the report on the shoe print you’ve been waiting for.” He dropped the fax on top of a pile of reports and continued to his own desk.

  Sam picked up the report and read the first line: “The tread does not match—”

  What the hell? All crime labs had books or databases on sneaker tread patterns, updated on a regular basis. Sometimes a manufacturer wouldn’t get around to sending in an update whenever they changed their styles or refused to do so for reasons of their own. When that happened, usually a lab would simply buy a pair of the shoes in question to get the pattern.

  Maybe the shoes had been bought in another country. Maybe they were an obscure off-brand, or maybe the guy was slick enough to have used a knife to change the tread pattern. He didn’t think so, though. This was no organized killer; this guy operated on emotion and opportunity.

  He started to toss the report, but realized it was rather wordy for a simple “does not match.” He couldn’t afford to overlook a single detail, couldn’t let his sense of urgency distract him. He began reading again. “The tread does not match that of any athletic shoe for men. The pattern does, however, match an exclusive style that is manufactured only for women. The section of tread pattern available is insufficient for determining exact size, but indicates probable size between eight and ten.”

  A woman’s shoe? The guy was wearing women’s shoes?

  Or … the guy was a woman.

  “Son of a bitch!” Sam said between his teeth, lunging for the phone and punching in Bernsen’s number. When Roger answered, he said, “I got the report back on the shoe. It’s a woman’s.”

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