Okay, I'll e-stop and get to the chapter. Enjoy.
* * * * *
Peri usually didn't mind the steady 78-degree temperature maintained in her office, but today it wouldn't do. Meeting a wealthy client like Don Keller meant dressing for more success than usual, so she had worn her charcoal suit, which was tailored, professional, and too warm for autumn in southern California. Upon entering her office, she cranked the thermostat down to seventy.
Cold flooded the small space. Peri stood by the vent to push the air down the front of her sapphire blouse and up over her temples until she was sufficiently dry. The hormone regimen had taken care of most of her hot flashes, but stress and sudden activity could still trigger a round of profuse sweating. Comfortable at last, she returned the thermostat to its normal setting and put her suit jacket back on.
Keller was due in her office at ten. At ten thirty, Peri heard a loud male voice coming down the hall. She couldn't quite make out words, but no one else was talking, which meant the guy was either on a cell phone or a raving lunatic. Just at the point where she wanted to go outside and thump whoever was blabbering, her office door flew open and a man charged in. He let the door slam behind him and looked at Peri.
She rose and extended her hand. "Mr. Keller? I'm-"
"John, he's been telling us to wait a week for the past month." Keller ignored her and dragged the guest chair around until it was halfway toward the door, facing the wall to her right. He sat down, propping an ankle on the opposite knee and alternately glancing at the door, then out the window. A large silver Bluetooth earpiece was implanted in his right ear, effectively cutting her off from any conversation with him as he continued talking on the phone. "I know you like the guy, but we can't give him any more time. Get the paperwork started, I'll be in to sign it later."
Peri sat back and watched the scene, astonished, wondering why she wanted him as a client, apart from his deep pockets. From his navy wool suit to his shiny Oxford shoes, he oozed both money and power. The faint scent of high-end cologne drifted across the room, a combination of sandalwood and cigars that crawled up her sinuses and clung to the front of her skull. She hated cologne.
Mr. Keller continued to yammer, unconcerned about her presence. For a real estate developer, he wasn't very charming. With the rich and mighty, always a little patience, Peri thought, remembering last night's viewing of The Philadelphia Story.
She tried again. "Mr. Keller-"
He held a hand out to silence her as he prattled on with the unseen caller. Peri felt the warm glow of irritation creep up her chest. To hell with patience, she didn't want this client badly enough to be abused for the privilege.
She reached into her pink snakeskin tote and pulled out her iPod, selected a song, and plugged it into the docking station. The Who's "My Generation" began playing. Peri pointed the speakers toward Keller and pressed the volume controls until the walls vibrated with each stroke of Keith Moon's drumsticks.
At the first sound of music, Keller gave a disapproving look to the iPod, then scooted his chair closer to the door. By the time the volume reached critical mass, he was glaring at Peri and shouting over the noise.
"Just a minute, John," he said as he left the office.
Peri turned the music off. She hoped Keller wouldn't tell all his friends what a horrid witch she was, but he was so disrespectful, she almost didn't care. Besides, she had plenty of other clients who would rebut his claim. She took off her jacket and opened her laptop to work on some billing.
As her computer whirred to life, the door opened and Don Keller walked back in. He pulled the chair up to the desk and sat down, facing Peri. She was happily surprised, until he opened his mouth.
"Miss Minnowpia, are you ready to discuss business? I don't have a lot of time."
Despite her desire to throw something large and heavy at his head, she kept her expression as neutral as possible. "Neither do I, Mister Keller. If the appointment you made with me was inconvenient, then you need to reschedule. I have other clients to see after you, and I have no intention of making them pay for your lack of consideration."
She had no other clients to see, but her blood had gone from boiling to pure steam heat.
"And by the way, it's Minn-ee-OH-pa." She sat back and stared at the rich businessman, then looked down at her watch. "But you can call me Peri if it's easier. Now, what can I do for you?"
The hum of a vibrating cell phone interrupted them. Keller looked at his phone, and then at Peri. The moment hung between them like a heavy fog, the phone's low tone purring at intervals. At last, Keller reached down and turned his phone off.
"I need someone to investigate my wife."
Peri opened a file on her laptop. "I can do that for you, Mr. Keller. I'm assuming you suspect your wife of having an affair."
He smiled, revealing a row of perfect teeth, the front two slightly pronounced, all white as porcelain against his tan. Peri noted his wavy blonde hair, blue eyes and dark eyebrows, and wondered how much was good genes and how much was the work of professionals.
"Let's just say I wonder how she spends her days. Vicki Cheavers recommended you. She said you were very thorough and very discreet."
More discreet than she is, Peri thought. Her client told her philandering husband who she'd hired to track his movements, and the husband repaid Peri by trying to kill her.
Handing him several papers, she said, "This is my standard contract and statement of my rates. If it's agreeable, you can sign it and we'll get started."
She took the signed documents back from him and placed them in a folder. "So, what makes you so curious about your wife's whereabouts?"
"Little things. Some I can understand, but some of them-" He reached into his jacket and pulled out a small notebook, then opened it and skimmed through the pages. "Consistent tardiness for one."
"Is this something new?"
Keller tilted his head, as if thinking. "Yes and no. Nikki's always been scatterbrained. I mean, I love her, but she can be the definition of a dumb blonde sometimes. So she's been late to things before, but lately it's, I don't know, different."
"Can you pin down 'different' a little? Is she late to every event?"
"Maybe not every event, but more than she used to."
"How about her demeanor when she's late? Has that changed?"
Keller nodded. "Maybe that's it. You used to know Nikki was late. You'd hear high heels clicking, then she'd burst into the room. I swear the lights would get brighter, just from her energy."
"And now?" Peri typed on her computer as she spoke.
"She slinks in, doesn't announce herself. By the time I see her, I have no idea how long she's even been there."
"How long has this been going on?"
"I'm not certain, but maybe as long as six months. I guess I just wanted to think everything was normal." He reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a slip of paper. "Then there's this. I found it in our trash."
Peri took it from him. It was a receipt from the Titan bookstore, on the campus of California State University, Fullerton. Sunglasses and a tee-shirt were purchased. "And what's the significance of this?"
"Nikki's a USC grad. She'd have no reason to be on the Fullerton campus, much less buy a shirt and sunglasses there."
"So you suspect her of buying these items for someone else?"
"I've never seen her wear them."
"Have you talked to her about any of this?"
He shook his head. "Odds are, she won't tell me the truth. Why should I tip my hand?"
Peri sat back and smiled. "Pre-nup?"
"I don't think we need to discuss that." He tore several pages out of his notebook and tossed them on the desk, then pulled several bills from his wallet and handed them to her.
"Thank you, Mr. Keller." She put the money and notes in the folder, and wrote a receipt. "How do you want me to get in touch with you?"
"Call my cell and leave a message, nothing too detailed. I'll call you back." He opened the door, and then turned, smiling. "Looks like your next client is running a little late."
Peri stared at him, smiling politely. "Some clients aren't very considerate, are they?"
She glanced at her watch as the door clicked shut. A little past eleven did not signal the lunch hour, but she hadn't eaten anything, apart from some cranberry juice. She had promised lunch with Skip, so she called him.
"Sorry, Doll, I can't get away before one," he told her.
Lunch plans cancelled, she stopped at a Chinese restaurant and picked up a quick bite to take home, where she could do a little research on Nikki Keller.
* * * * *
Stay tuned next week for another exciting chapter! Or, look over to the right of this blog - it's for sale in paperback, in e-book, and even as an autographed copy from moi!
P.S. I know there are a lot of exclamation points in this post, but I don't get to use them in my books, so I like to get them out and let them run around a little.