The next sucker who told Aiden Flynn, detective NYPD, to get a life was dead meat.
Lightning crazed the night sky over Hell's Kitchen and kept a man praying for thunder . . . and rain, rain, rain. Why didn't it rain, dammit? And why had he agreed to babysit Ryan Hill's orchids? And why didn't he just quit now that Detective Hill had gone AWOL after his upstate vacation with dear ol' Dad? Oh, sure dad was too sick to be left alone. Probably needed help in and out of the indoor pool at the mountain spread Ryan liked to brag about.
Ah, hell, the suffocating air, or lack of it, was mangling his nerves. Truth was, curiosity kept him coming upstairs from his own apartment to tend plants belonging to a guy he didn't like. Curiosity and competition. His own orchids would do as well as these if he had the equivalent of a green house, rather than a couple of lousy, make-do cabinets he'd rigged himself.
Living on the top floor of the building where an old but sturdy wall of windows wrapped over several feet of sun-sucking roof space, Ryan D. Hill's (never mention that the D stood for Douglas) oncidiums bloomed, one plant after another. Currently, umber and cream blossoms cascaded from small forests of spikes on two Shari Baby specimens. Aiden's oncidiums hadn't produced one bloom, ever.
His cell phone beeped discreetly. What did it say about a man when he was grateful his phone rang? He flipped the instrument open, jabbed at it with his thumb, and said, "Yeah?"
"Finally. That heap of electronic junk you put together for me is on the fritz again."
"So?" For a boy from a good Italian family in Brooklyn, Vanni Zanetto tended to be short on the words.
"I've got things to do tonight--"
"Places to go?" Vanni said, dead flat. "People to see? Sure, I know. Enjoy. How's my dog?"
"Boss is just fine. And he's my dog. Don't change the subject. That damned computer turns Greek on me. No kidding, not a moment's warning, and everything just translates into Greek. Looks like Greek to me, anyway. I'm spending my time getting out, and getting in again."
"Lucky guy. Congratulations. Is she a good looker?"
Vanni could be too quick to live. "Save that," Aiden said. "But make sure your Mama doesn't find out what a dirty mind you've got. Just get over here and work your magic, buddy."
A sigh wafted, long and theatrical, across the distance between them. "Mama was askin' about you, Aiden. She's got another nice girl she wants you to meet."
"Have you met her?"
"Sure, I should trust your Mama again. I haven't forgotten Milly the garlic-lover."
"So what's wrong with liking a little garlic?"
"Vanni, the woman had to be using the stuff as body lotion. She might even have been substituting garlic rubs for showers--how the hell would I know?" He felt guilty for knocking Milly. "Hey, she's a nice girl, just not my type of nice girl, okay?"
"But this new one--"
"Will you come fix my computer, partner? It'll take me all night to do it myself."
"You'd never manage it yourself," Vanni said.
"I'll let that pass. I gotta get online if I'm going to get any sleep. You know how cranky I am if I don't get any sleep before I go on duty--and you're the one who'll have to listen to me."
"Hey, Aiden old buddy, why don't you hop in your beloved pink panther and get over here? We could drop in at Sully's and--"
"Pink pony." By accident or design, Vanni couldn't seem to get Aiden's favorite wheels, his mint condition '67 pink Mustang right--or any car in his beloved collection. "I'm not going anywhere but online. Thanks, anyway."
"Dammit, Aiden." Vanni's temper wasn't hard to arouse. "When are you goin' to quit foolin' around with people you know you'll never meet, and get out in the world?"
"I'm out there every day. It doesn't have much to recommend it."
"Listen, I'll say this slow and quiet," Vanni told him. "Just see how slow and quiet I can be. That's because I care about you. I worry because you're living some sort of surreal existence with a bunch of virtual pals. You do it because you feel safe with 'em. They'll never ring your bell in the middle of the night and ask if you want company, or expect you to make some sort of move on 'em."
"Let me finish. You're lonely, but you're scared shitless of commitment."
Aiden felt his temper begin a burn. "You just stepped way over the line. And where's the woman you've committed yourself to, huh?"
Vanni delivered another world-class sigh. "We're gonna talk. Later. And there's nothing wrong with Italian girls. I'll get there when I can--but only 'cause I want to visit Boss." He broke the connection.
"Nice Italian girls," Aiden muttered, not that he hadn't met wonderful Italian women, but he was allergic to being fixed-up by or with anyone.
Ryan D's grow lights were all functioning perfectly, his fans oscillating nicely. Too bad.
On a fancy desk with the curved lines of Scandinavian furniture, and made of teak and sleek stainless steel, sat Ryan's computer monitor with its impressive, twenty-one inch screen. Beneath the desk on a conveniently wheeled trolley was his computer tower. Aiden couldn't recall how many gigabytes the miraculous hard drive boasted, nor how much memory Detective Hill repeatedly mentioned. If Aiden didn't know better, he'd wonder about his own memory, but he knew himself too well, and the less than generous habit he had of forgetting what was either unimportant or annoying.
There was Ryan's machine--undoubtedly in perfect operating condition and faster than anything Aiden got to use, while one floor down the "bargain" beast Vanni had assembled groaned and refused to come to heel.
Aiden approached the big screen in its luminous blue case. Who had ever even seen a luminous blue case on a computer monitor? The keyboard was one of those two-part jobs, one for the left hand and one for the right hand--also blue. Large enough for most people to curl a whole hand around, the mouse occupied it's own miniature oriental carpet.
Which led to another question: with all of his money, why did Ryan D. need to bother his fetid little brain, and his delicate sensibilities, with the business of being a homicide detective? Maybe rather than having to look after his now sick father, Ryan had finally twigged to how unsuited he was to life among the unsavory. Maybe he would never come back at all.
A guy could hope.
Aiden sat in Ryan's soft, gray leather chair and morosely regarded the dark screen. From time to time an orange light flashed below and he heard a perfect life-form churning softly within the machine.
His own hand was too long on the mouse, he'd probably have to use it with the last two digits of his fingers. He tested his theory and jerked his hand away instantly. Too late. A faint snapping sounded, and a list appeared--Ryan's incoming mail. After two weeks that list was likely to be long enough to make an orderly mind cringe.
Vanni would take his own sweet time getting here. Why not check e-mail from this machine? Ryan wouldn't mind--and since he'd never know, it didn't matter anyway.
"Nope, Aiden. You can wait." He got up and scanned the bank of wall switches that controlled Ryan's orchid setup.
The list on the computer screen rolled up. Another post came in, and another.
It couldn't hurt to take a look at his own mail from here.
Lightning cracked again and he glanced at rooftops briefly illuminated. Thunder followed almost at once, low thunder that rumbled on and on like the sound of boulders gathering speed down a mountainside. The weather had been weird, slightly out of whack, all year. Now winter approached but dragged a sultry trail behind it, a nod of the head to an Indian summer that never came.
"And here come the rain," he muttered, and breathed long and deep. "Oh, yeah." First the big showy drops that needed space to spatter, but blessedly soon a torrent that clattered on Ryan's coveted overhead glass.
Rain made Aiden's soul open up. He could breathe again.
OliviaFitz@bargain.uk was the first entry he actually read on Ryan's list.
Who'd have thought it? Aiden grinned. The crown prince of the 17th Precinct was a closet bargain shopper. Maybe the Ferragamo dress shoes he wore to work were knock-offs.
There was OliviaFitz again. And again. At first he read the names of the people writing to Ryan idly. Soon enough he leaned forward to examine the times on Ms. Olivia's posts. They had arrived from half an hour to an hour apart. Why would someone need to write a series of messages rather than one long one?
None of his damn business.
A siren soared and Aiden smiled. The sound of his city at night. New York being New York. He liked everything about the place.
Thunder roared again, shaking the old building.
Ryan's miraculous machine and its view panel didn't even flicker.
The top post on the e-mail list was highlighted. Aiden tapped the mouse and watched OliviaFitz's message unfold on the screen.
One of the blessings about being a cop was that it took a lot to make you feel guilty. Hey, maybe there was something here that Ryan needed to know about--now.
Rain fell even harder. The lights over Ryan's orchids spread an eerie blue glow that cast reflections of the plants on the windows. Behind the orchids Aiden could see himself at a distance, and the door behind him. He shifted uneasily, then felt stupid.
Ryan Hill wasn't buying phony Ferragamos online.
"Good to hear from you again, Sam. You're so logical and I do appreciate your advice."
"I will think about accepting the kill-fee for the London Style layout, but it's awfully strange for the magazine to change its mind. Even if I didn't need the money for this commission, I could really use the credit. Cheerio, Olivia."
Nothing Ryan needed to know there. She must have the wrong address for her Sam. But what, he wondered, was a kill-fee? He might consider a foreign term for a hit contract, but the context didn't fit.
Maybe it would be kind to take a look at another post from her and see if he ought to let her know Sam wasn't reading what she wrote. Evidently she was a Brit. Wouldn't hurt to do his bit for international relations.
"It still amazes me to think about the way we stumbled on each other. Imagine you writing to me by mistake, just trying to remember an address and getting me. Life is so odd. How can we only have met a few weeks ago? It feels as if we've known each other forever.
And Vanni thought his partner was lonely? The way Olivia wrote to her Sam made Aiden pity her. He might even feel sad if he could remember how.
"Having a dog yourself, you'll understand how I felt about Wilbur. He was just in too much pain to go on. I stayed with him at the end. We'd been pals for eleven years, since I was fifteen. Felt like forever. Even though it's more than two years later, there's still a hole where he used to be. Forgive me for going on about it. You've been so understanding. This is strange, but I can feel how kind you are.
"Your Boswell sounds a dear. How perfectly awful that those bad men hit his mouth with a baseball bat. I'm sure it was very expensive to have some of his teeth capped with metal, but you're the kind of person who wouldn't spare any expense to help a beloved animal."
Aiden's eyes glazed. Well, hell. That was it. Ryan Hill was Sam, had to be since he'd evidently claimed ownership of Aiden's Boswell, Boss to people he didn't hate. Very few called the dog Boss. Bad men? Baseball bat? Wait till Vanni got a load of this. Ryan Hill, alias Sam, and a dog-hater trying to impress some Brit female with his generosity to animals. And lying about Aiden's Boss, an ornery retired police dog who had earned his titanium mashers by keeping his teeth embedded in a rapist's arm while the crazy bastard slammed away at the animal's mouth with the butt of an empty gun.
And Olivia could feel how kind Ryan was?
"Anyway," she continued, "thank you for writing back so quickly. How do you stand the unpredictable weather in New York? I melt when the temperature gets close to 80, and freeze at anything below 40. I must admit that you make Hell's Kitchen sound intriguing . . ."
Dear Ryan was definitely Dear Sam. So the stud who boasted that he had a woman for every night of the week and some to spare, still went looking for extra jollies among what Vanni called, "virtual pals." Who'd have thought it?
"Are you sure you have an extra room I could use? Oh, what am I saying? I know I won't come, but it is awfully sweet of you to offer. Toodles, Olivia."
The message had been sent about two hours ago.
He ought to check his mail and get out of here.
Slowly, he clicked on Olivia's next post and felt an unfamiliar rush of remorse. He was snooping out of idle curiosity--and boredom.
"Sam: Thank you for saying you do mean it about the room. As I already wrote, I really appreciate the offer."
Aiden fell back in the chair and stared. Obviously Ryan had read and responded to the first post Aiden had read. Ryan was communicating with Olivia from wherever he was right now. He was picking up his e-mail at a remote location and answering Olivia from that location.
If he brought her here it would be obvious he'd lied about the dog. Which meant he didn't intend to bring her here. Why would he lie about something like that?
It was just a game. People played these games all the time. Like Olivia said, she would never come to the States.
Ryan might hate Boss, but the feeling was more than mutual.
So what? This was fiction--mostly fiction.
"Okay, I'm just going to tell you the truth. I'm frightened, Sam, and you're the only one likely to give me sensible advice. While I was out today someone must have searched the house. I know what you'll be thinking--why am I just writing about it now? They searched my darkroom--nowhere else--and I only just went down there. It's in the basement. I probably wouldn't have known they'd been here at all if I wasn't so compulsive about keeping my work organized.
"This is weird, but I think I know what they may have been searching for: the photos for Penny Biggles' London Style layout. I don't know what made me take the prints and negs with me when I went out, I just did. Maybe it was what you told me that made me more cautious. I rang up London Style a little while ago. They don't know anything about the kill-fee that man called to offer me. I photographed this London house for Penny--fabulous place in Notting Hill--and some of the shots will be used to illustrate an article being written about her work--at least, I still hope they will. Penny was the designer. Whoever was in here didn't take anything as far as I can tell, they must have wanted these.
"London Style told me they still expect to use the piece. So the call about someone coming here to see me and bringing money, the kill-fee, but wanting to have the pictures in case they could place them was a hoax, right? Which means my photographs are valuable to someone. The authorities are the best ones to deal with this now. My friend, Mark Donnely, is an inspector at Scotland Yard. He's bound to have a good idea."
Aiden let the screen go black and stood up. He'd taken the prying too far.
The door opened and he jumped before he heard Vanni say, "Thought I'd find you up here. Jealousy is bad news, buddy. You covet the guy's orchids. I hope he counted 'em before he left."
"Petty theft isn't my thing."
Vanni came all the way into the apartment. Even by subdued light his solid bulk and the vitality that hovered around him were big, powerful. He said, "What is your thing?"
"Reading Ryan's e-mail," Aiden said, for the shock value. "Actually, Sam's e-mail. That's who our slimy colleague is when he's chatting up women online."
Vanni chuckled, then was silent. Rain glittered in his dark, curly hair and on his leather jacket. He approached the computer, his substantial shoulders swinging as he sidestepped the chair to stand over Ryan's screen. Vanni tapped the mouse and jutted his chin when he started scanning the list of mail that appeared.
"What d'you think you're doing?" Aiden asked. "Don't you have a conscience?"
"Yeah. Somewhere around. Probably hangin' out with yours."
Aiden took a seat in the gray leather chair again and watched while Vanni read Olivia's first epistle, and the second. "Shee-it," he muttered. "What's he up to?"
"If we read on, we may find out. But we aren't going to read on, are we?"
Vanni turned his head to look at Aiden. "Aren't we?"
"Let's say someone's sneaking into Ryan's setup . . . No, let's say someone's hit Ryan, buried him up in those hills, and now the killer's infiltrating Ryan's persona. A crazy, naturally."
"Naturally," Vanni said, grinning. "Poor old Ryan. And we never had a chance to finish figuring out if he's really a cop gone bad."
This was one of Vanni's favorite theories. He was convinced Ryan Hill--and maybe his grizzled partner, Fats Lemon, too--were on the take.
Aiden shook his head and took the mouse away. He opened the next piece of mail from Olivia. When had he started calling this stranger Olivia?
"You really think I should keep quiet about all this and bring the photos and negatives to America for safe keeping? This seems extreme, but I want to agree. I wonder why you're so against my idea of approaching Mark. You must be reacting as an FBI agent. And you're nervous, too, aren't you? You think whoever's doing this could be anyone--including Mark. That wouldn't make any sense, but you aren't to know that.
Vanni snorted. He gestured as only he could. "Will you look at that? He thinks he's more irresistible as a fed then NYPD. Schmuck. Maybe my ambition's changed. Why help him retire altogether? Why not get him busted down to the beat?"
"Mama," Aiden said, "wouldn't approve of plotting, in particular plotting for no more honorable reason than you don't like a guy."
"Schmuck," Vanni muttered.
"Read on," Aiden told him.
"Sam, maybe I'm overreacting and letting my imagination run away with me, but what if I did come to you and someone frightful followed me on the plane? Wouldn't that be terribly dangerous? They could hold up the plane, hijack it or something."
"The lady's a dramatist," Vanni said.
Aiden said, "The lady's scared. She ought to be. Whatever game friend Ryan's playing--if he really means he wants her and her photos here--there's something very wrong with the way it smells."
"Read the next one," Vanni said, bracing himself on the desk.
"Yeah. Only twenty minutes between the two."
"All right, I'll come if you think it's best to put distance between me and London. Oh, dear, I really am quite frightened now, I must say. We've never met, yet I feel I know you better than I've ever known any man. I don't know what I should do without you. I'm alone here. Mummy and Daddy wouldn't understand, and Daddy would blunder about making such an embarrassing fuss.
"I suppose I could book up and let you know when I'll be arriving. Thank goodness for credit cards. I never thought I'd say that. I hope we'll know each other when we meet--if we meet. We should have found a way to exchange photographs. I have a scanner, of course. I know you don't, but you could have used someone else's."
Aiden looked not only at Ryan's scanner, but at the digital camera on the desk beside the keyboard. Explanation needed--soon.
"I'm very ordinary looking," Olivia continued. "Brown hair and eyes, sturdy, average height and, according to Penny, a sartorial disaster. Sorry about that. I'll be wearing a hat. I almost always wear a hat. And I know it's corny, but I'll put a flower on my lapel. You could do that, too. We might as well try to lighten things up a bit."
That was the last post.
"Batty," Vanni said.
Aiden agreed. "Deranged."
"They could be perfect for each other."
"He could be planning to rip her off."
"What's she got to rip off?" Vanni asked. "She doesn't even have the price of an airline ticket."
"It's an expensive ticket."
"Not that expensive."
The bell announcing incoming mail rang on Ryan's computer. Olivia Fitz's name showed up together with, "That man just rang up again. He asked if I'd thought about the kill-fee and said he was on his way to talk to me in person. They obviously don't think I suspect anything. I tried to get Penny, but she's in France and I can't find her. I'm getting out of here. I'll call the airport, then I'll give you the flight number. See you in New York."
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