To Die For by Linda Howard

  The resulting screech probably scared cows grazing in the next county. She called me a bitch, a whore, a slut, and that was just as a warm-up. The shrill invective got louder and louder, drawing the attention of just about everyone in Great Bods, and I think she would have slugged me if she hadn’t known I was in better shape than she was and would definitely slug her in return, only harder. She settled for sweeping everything off the countertop—a couple of potted plants, membership applications, a couple of pens—onto the floor and flounced out with the parting shot that her lawyer would be in touch with me.

  Fine. Whatever. I’d match my lawyer against hers any day. Siana was young, but she was lethal, and she didn’t mind fighting dirty. We get that from our mother.

  The women who had gathered to watch Nicole’s tantrum broke into applause as the door closed behind her. The men merely looked bewildered. I was pissed because Nicole hadn’t cleaned out her locker, which meant I’d have to let her back inside once more to retrieve her belongings. I thought about asking Siana if I could insist on Nicole making an appointment to empty her locker, and having a cop present to both witness the removal of her personal belongings and prevent another tantrum.

  The rest of the day passed in a golden glow. I was free from Nicole! I didn’t even mind cleaning up the mess she’d made, because she was gone, gone, gone.

  Okay. That’s the deal with Nicole.

  Back to me leaving that night by the back entrance, et cetera, et cetra.

  The streetlight on the corner illuminated the parking lot, but the shadows were deep. A steady drizzle was falling, which made me mutter a swear word because the street crud would get my car dirty, and the night was turning misty on top of that. Rain and fog are not a good combination. Thank goodness I don’t have curly hair, so I never have to worry about frizz in circumstances like these.

  If you ever have the opportunity to be an eyewitness to a newsworthy event, you at least want to look your best.

  I had locked the door and turned around before I noticed the car at the back corner of the parking lot. It was a white Mustang. Nicole was waiting for me, damn it.

  Instantly alert and faintly alarmed—after all, she had turned violent earlier—I stepped back so the wall was at my back and she couldn’t catch me from behind. I looked in both directions, expecting her to come at me from out of the shadows, but nothing happened and I looked at the Mustang again, wondering if she was sitting in it waiting for me to leave. What was she going to do, follow me? Try to run me off the road? Pull alongside me and fire some shots? I didn’t put anything past her.

  The rain and fog made it impossible to tell if anyone was in the Mustang, but then I made out a figure standing on the far side of the car, and I saw blond hair. I reached into my bag for my cell phone, and turned it on. If she made one step toward me, I was calling 911.

  Then the figure on the far side of the Mustang wavered and moved, and a bigger, darker shadow separated itself from Nicole. A man. Oh, hell, she’d brought someone to beat me up.

  I punched in the 9 and the first 1.

  A loud crack of noise made me jump a foot high, and my first thought was that lightning had struck nearby. But there hadn’t been a blinding flash, nor did the ground shake. Then I realized the noise was probably a gunshot, and I was probably the target, and I squeaked in panic as I dropped to all fours behind the car. Actually, I was trying to scream, but all that would come out was this Minnie Mouse noise that would have embarrassed me if I hadn’t been scared half to death. Nicole hadn’t brought muscle; she’d brought a hit man.

  I’d dropped my cell phone, and in the dark I couldn’t see it. It didn’t help that I was trying to watch all around me and so I couldn’t really take the time to look for the phone. I just began sweeping the pavement with my hand, trying to locate it. Oh, shit, what if the hit man was coming over to see if he’d hit me with that first shot? I mean, I’d dropped to the ground, so thinking I’d been hit was reasonable. Should I lie flat and play dead? Crawl under the car? Try to get back inside the building and lock the door?

  I heard a car engine start, and I looked up just as a dark four-door sedan cruised up the narrow side street and out of sight alongside the building. I heard it slow and stop at the intersection with the four-lane street, Parker, in front, then pull out into the fairly sparse traffic. I couldn’t tell which way it turned.

  Was that the hit man? If anyone else had been in the parking lot, surely he or she had heard the shot and therefore wouldn’t be driving sedately away. The only sedate driver would be the shooter, right? Anyone else would have been getting the hell out of there, just like I desperately wanted to do.

  Typical of Nicole to hire a sorry excuse for a hit man; he hadn’t even checked to make certain I was dead. But even if the hit man had left, where was Nicole? I waited and listened, but there weren’t any footsteps, nor the sound of the Mustang starting.

  I got down on my stomach and peeked around one of my front tires. The white Mustang was still sitting in the parking lot, but there wasn’t any sign of Nicole.

  Nor were there any passersby rushing to investigate the shot or see if anyone was hurt. Great Bods was located in a good district, with small shops and restaurants nearby, but no houses—and the shops and restaurants catered mostly to the surrounding businesses, so all of the restaurants closed by six and the shops not long afterward. If anyone leaving Great Bods later than that wanted a sandwich, the closest place was about five blocks away. Until now, I hadn’t realized how isolated that made the employees’ parking lot at closing time.

  No one else had heard the shot. I was on my own.

  I had two choices. My car keys were in my pocket. I had two key rings because the sheer number of the keys I needed for the gym made the ring too bulky to carry around while I did errands or shopped. I could get to my car keys without delay, unlock the car with the remote, and hop in before Nicole could get to me—unless she was standing right on the other side of my car, which I didn’t think she was, but anything was possible. But a car, especially a convertible, didn’t feel substantial enough to hold off a psycho copycat. What if she was the one with the gun? A ragtop won’t stop a bullet.

  My other choice was to fish the big set of gym keys out of my bag, feel for the door key, unlock the door, and get inside. That would take more time, but I’d be much safer behind a locked door.

  Well, I guess there was a third option, which was to look for Nicole and try to get the jump on her, and I might have if I’d known for certain she didn’t have the gun. I didn’t know, though, so no way was I playing hero. I may be blond, but I’m not stupid.

  Also, fighting like that will break at least two fingernails. It’s a given.

  So I felt around in my bag until I located my keys. The key ring had a thingamabob in the middle that kept the keys from sliding completely around, so they were always in order. The door key was the first one to the left of the middle thingie. I isolated it, then, staying low, duck-walked backward to the door. The motion looks really awful but is a great exercise for the thighs and butt.

  No one jumped out at me. There wasn’t any sound at all except for the distant noise of occasional traffic over on Parker, and that was somehow spookier than if she had leaped, shrieking, over the roof of my car at me. Not that I thought Nicole could jump that far, unless her gymnastic skills were way, way better than she had let on, and I knew better than that because she was the type to show off. She couldn’t even do a split, and if she’d tried to do a backflip, the weight of her boobs would have dumped her on her face.

  God, I wished she’d tried a backflip at least once.

  My hands were shaking only a little—okay, more than a little—but I managed to unlock the door on the first try. I practically shot through the opening, and really, I wish I had given myself another inch or two of clearance because I bruised my right arm on the doorjamb. But then I was inside, and I slammed the door and turned the dead bolt, then crawled away in case she shot through th
e door.

  I always leave a couple of low-wattage lights burning at night, but they’re both in front. The light switch for the back hallway was just inside the door, of course, and no way was I going so close to the door. Because I couldn’t see where I was going, I continued to crawl along the hallway, feeling my way past the female employees’ bathroom—the men’s room was on the other side of the hallway—then the break room, and finally reached the third door, which was my office.

  I felt like a base runner sliding into home. Safe!

  Now that there were walls and a locked door between me and the psycho-bitch, I stood up and turned on the overhead lights, then picked up the phone and angrily jabbed 911. If she thought I wouldn’t have her arrested for this, she had seriously underestimated how thoroughly pissed I was.



  A black-and-white pulled, lights flashing, to a stop in the front parking lot exactly four minutes and twenty-seven seconds later. I know because I timed them. When I tell a 911 operator that someone is shooting at me, I expect fast service from the police department my taxes help support, and I had decided that anything under five minutes was reasonable. There’s a little bit of diva in me that I try to keep bitch-slapped into submission, because it’s true that people are more cooperative if you aren’t snapping their heads off (go figure), and I make it a point to be as nice to people as I can—my ex-husband excluded—but all bets are off when I fear for my life.

  Not that I was hysterical or anything. I didn’t charge out the front door and throw myself into the arms of the boys in blue—I wanted to, but they emerged from their patrol car with their hands on their pistol butts, and I suspected they’d shoot at me, too, if I ran at them. I’d had enough of that for one night, so though I turned on the lights and unlocked the front door, I stayed just inside the door, where they could see me but I was protected from any lurking psycho-bitch. Also, the drizzle had turned into rain and I didn’t want to get wet.

  I was calm. I wasn’t jumping up and down and shrieking. Granted, the adrenaline and stress had caught up with me and I was shaking from head to toe, and I really wanted to call Mom, but I toughed it out and didn’t even cry.

  “We have a report of shots being fired at this location, ma’am,” one of the cops said as I stepped back and let them enter. His alert gaze was studying every detail of the empty reception area, probably searching for people with weapons. He looked to be in his late twenties, with a buzz cut and a thick neck that told me he worked out. He wasn’t one of my clients, though, because I knew them all. Maybe I could show him around the facilities while he was here, after they had arrested Nicole’s ass and hauled her off to the psych ward. Hey, never miss an opportunity to expand your client base, right?

  “Just one shot,” I said. I held out my hand. “I’m Blair Mallory, and I own Great Bods.”

  I don’t think many people properly introduce themselves to cops, because both of them looked taken aback. The other cop looked even younger, a baby cop, but he recovered first and actually shook my hand. “Ma’am,” he said politely, then took a little notebook out of his pocket and wrote down my name. “I’m Officer Barstow, and this is Officer Spangler.”

  “Thank you for coming,” I said, giving them my best smile. Yes, I was still shaking, but good manners are good manners.

  They were subtly less wary, since I was obviously not armed. I was wearing a midriff-baring pink halter-top and black yoga pants, so I didn’t even have any pockets where I might hide anything. Office Spangler removed his hand from his pistol. “What’s going on?” he asked.

  “This afternoon I had some trouble with a client, Nicole Goodwin”—her name was dutifully noted in Officer Barstow’s little notebook—“when I refused to renew her membership based on numerous complaints filed by other members. She became violent, knocked things off the desk, called me names, things like that—”

  “Did she strike you?” Spangler asked.

  “No, but she was waiting for me tonight when I locked up. Her car was in the parking lot in back, where the employees park. It was still there when I called nine-one-one, though she’s probably gone by now. I could see her and someone else, I think a man, by her car. I heard a shot and dropped to the ground behind my car, then someone—I think the man—drove off, but Nicole stayed, or at least her car did. I stayed low, got back inside the building, and called nine-one-one.”

  “Are you sure it was a gunshot you heard?”

  “Yes, of course.” Please. This was the south, North Carolina, specifically. Of course I knew how gunshots sounded. I had even shot a .22 rifle myself. Grampie—my grandfather on my mother’s side—used to take me with him squirrel hunting when we visited them in the country. He died from a heart attack when I was ten, and no one ever took me squirrel hunting again. Still, that isn’t a sound you forget, even if a television program weren’t reminding you every few seconds.

  Now, cops don’t go blithely walking up to a car where supposedly an armed psycho-bitch is sitting. After ascertaining that the white Mustang was indeed still parked out back, Officers Barstow and Spangler talked into their cute little radios that were attached to their shoulders somehow—Velcro, maybe—and very shortly another black-and-white unit arrived, from which emerged Officers Washington and Vyskosigh. I had gone to school with DeMarius Washington, and he gave me a brief smile before his chiseled dark face once more set into businesslike lines. Vyskosigh was short and broad, mostly bald, and he was Not From Around Here, which is how southerners describe Yankees. To a southerner, that phrase explains everything, from taste in food and clothing to manners.

  I was told to stay inside—no problem there—while the four cautiously went out into the darkness and rain to ask Nicole what the hell she was doing.

  I was so very obedient—which shows how rattled I was—that I was still standing in exactly the same spot when Officer Vyskosigh came back inside and gave me a very sharp once-over. I was a bit taken aback. This just wasn’t the time for ogling, you know?

  “Ma’am,” he said politely, “would you like to sit down?”

  “Yes, I would,” I replied, just as politely, and sat down in one of the visitors’ chairs. I wondered what was going on outside. How much longer could this take?

  After a few more minutes, more cars arrived outside, lights flashing. My parking lot was beginning to look like a cop convention. Good Lord, couldn’t four cops handle Nicole? They’d had to call in reinforcements? She must be even more psycho than I’d realized. I’ve heard that when people go nuts, they have superhuman strength. Nicole was definitely nuts. I had a mental picture of her tossing cops left and right as she strode toward me, and wondered if I should barricade myself inside my office.

  Officer Vyskosigh didn’t look as if he would let me do the barricade thing. In fact, I was beginning to think Officer Vyskosigh wasn’t so much protecting me—as I’d originally thought—as guarding me. As in, making sure I didn’t do . . . something.


  Various scenarios began racing through my mind. If he was here to prevent me from doing something, what could that something be? Peeing? Paperwork? Both of which I did actually need to do, which is why they were first on my mental list, but I doubted the police department was interested in either of them. At least I hoped Officer Vyskosigh wasn’t interested, particularly in the first item.

  I didn’t want to go there, so I jerked my thoughts back on track.

  Neither were they concerned I might suddenly go berserk, rush out, and attack Nicole before they could stop me. I’m not the violent type, unless I’m extremely provoked; what’s more, if any of them had been paying the least attention to me, they’d have noticed that I had a fresh manicure—the color was Iced Poppy, which was my newest favorite color. My hands looked really nice, if I do say so myself. Nicole wasn’t worth a broken nail, so obviously she was safe from me.

  By now it must be fairly clear that I can mentally dance around a subject for pretty much eternity,
if there’s something I really don’t want to think about.

  I really didn’t want to think about why Officer Vyskosigh was standing guard over me. I really, really didn’t.

  Unfortunately, some things are just too big to ignore, and the truth cut into my mental do-si-do. The shock was almost like a physical blow; I actually jerked back in my chair.

  “Oh, my God. That shot wasn’t fired at me, was it?” I blurted. “Nicole— The man shot at her, didn’t he? He shot—” Her, I started to say, but instead nausea welled hot and insistent in my throat and I had to swallow, hard. My ears started ringing and I realized I was about to do something ungraceful, such as fall out of the chair flat on my face, so I quickly bent over and put my head between my knees, and took deep breaths.

  “Are you all right?” Office Vyskosigh asked, his voice barely audible above the ringing in my ears. I waved a hand at him to let him know I was conscious, and concentrated on breathing. In, out. In, out. I tried to pretend I was in a yoga class.

  The ringing in my ears began to fade. I heard the front door open, heard multiple footsteps.

  “She okay?” someone asked.

  I waved my hand again. “Just give me a minute,” I managed to say, though the words were directed at the floor. Another thirty seconds of controlled breathing pushed the nausea away, and cautiously I sat up.

  The newcomers, two men, were dressed in street clothes, and they were each peeling off plastic gloves. Their clothes were damp from the rain, and their wet shoes had made tracks on my nice shiny floor. I glimpsed something red and wet on one glove, and the room spun around me. Quickly I bent back over.

  Okay, I’m not usually such a fragile flower, but I hadn’t had anything to eat since lunch and the time now had to be ten o’clock or even later, so my blood sugar was probably low.

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