Lex Kent - This has really been a wild series. While book 1 is pretty calm, the rest of the series takes off with a ton of angst and relationship drama. I would recommend reading these books in order. If you start with this book, you would be missing way too much. I hope Roberts is writing book 7 now.
Victor Guzman, Esquire, halted at the sight of a gunman in his firm’s law library. He’d momentarily returned to his office for a file, and as he returned to the library, movement caught his eye through the glass walls. In the split second it took for him to process imminent danger, the shooter turned, saw him and fired. He covered his ears as glass exploded around him. He didn’t realize he’d started running until he saw the red exit sign above the east stairwell door. He barreled through it and headed up the stairs. Before he reached the first landing, he realized his mistake. He’d opened the door, seen the ascending steps and run up instead of down.
He’d never been in the stairwell. He always took the elevators from the fifth to the tenth floor where the other half of the law firm lived, and he’d been conveniently absent from the monthly fire drills. Now he was regretting those choices. While he easily powered up the first two flights, by the time he reached the seventh floor, he was gulping for air and his legs felt like sandbags.
He paused long enough to jiggle the doorknob, but it was locked, as it should be. A company badge only opened the door for the floors rented by that company. Yet sometimes doors were unlocked if the badge reader was broken. But not tonight.
He heard the fifth floor stairwell door crash open. The shooter was following him and he still had three more flights to go. Each step was one step closer to the tenth floor. He was out of shape, and he never should’ve given up that gym membership after the divorce.
Two more flights.
He whipped around a corner, using the handrail to pull himself up. He glanced down. The shooter leaned over the side, pointing the gun upward. He pushed away from the railing just as the shot reverberated throughout the stairwell. He jumped and grabbed his ears. It was so loud! He hugged the wall and turned past the ninth floor door.
One more flight.
If he didn’t get through the door before the shooter reached the last landing, he’d be dead, shot in the back. He stumbled, the toe of his dress shoe catching a step. He stayed upright but his heart pounded in his chest, pleading for him to stop.
And the shooter was gaining on him.
He saw the door above. He focused on the black number ten spray-painted on the center. Three, two, one. He was there! He slapped his badge against the key reader and pushed open the door as a shot exploded above him. Tiny fragments of concrete rained on his head. He slammed the door shut behind him and glanced left and right. He went left, hoping the shooter would make the opposite choice. The floor was designed like a square donut with the elevators and stairwells in the center. An employee stretching his legs could make a complete circle and return to his starting point. A sea of empty cubicles filled the southern square footage, each one housing a paralegal or a legal assistant. He ran to the center of the maze and dropped to the floor just as the shooter burst through the stairwell door.
He closed his eyes and listened for footfalls but heard nothing. The shooter had gone to the right, toward the conference rooms and kitchen. Victor knew he had a little time before the shooter circled to the south side and began searching the individual workstations. He crawled toward the back corner cubicle, putting as much distance as possible between himself and the stairwell from which he’d just come. He was also closer to the other stairwell, but he didn’t think he had the energy to power down ten flights. And he couldn’t outrun a bullet.
He crawled past several workstations, noticing his paralegal hadn’t bothered to shut down her computer. He needed to call the police, but his phone was in the law library. It suddenly dawned on him that each desk was equipped with a landline. He used the desk phones so infrequently that he’d forgotten they existed. He closed his eyes and listened but heard nothing.
He read the nameplate of the nearest cubicle: Sadie Adelstein. He didn’t know her, but judging from the green cardigan hung on the back of her chair, he guessed she was older. He slowly sat up and peered onto her desk. Sadie’s phone was out of reach, shoved behind her computer. Apparently, she rarely used her desk phone either. To grab the handset he’d have to stand and pull it toward him, pushing aside five different photos of two young boys Victor imagined were her grandchildren. He frowned. They had a policy about personal photos.
He slowly lifted his frame over the desk, but his large belly prevented him from leaning over the lip of the tabletop. Swift footsteps approached, but they sounded like the click of a woman’s heels and not the smacking of soles against concrete he’d heard in the stairwell. He dropped to the floor. The heels disappeared, and he heard the stairwell door latch softly engage. It wasn’t the shooter but someone else. Who was here this late on a Tuesday night? She had come from the direction of the conference rooms. She must have heard the gunshots, but she’d managed to escape. She’d call the police! He just needed to stay alive until then.
A loud crash from the kitchen sent him scampering along the back wall. The shooter had finished the search of the north side and would start to comb through the cubicles. Victor peered between two workstations and looked longingly at the elevators. They were ridiculously slow and provided nowhere to hide while he waited. If he tried to cross to the north side, to the conference rooms the shooter had already searched, he’d be seen for sure. His choices were to follow the Lady in Heels and dart down the west stairwell or find a secure hiding place. There was a short hallway that led to the storage room and the executive washroom, both potential hiding spots.
He heard the shooter rustling through the aisles between the workstations. Chairs toppled and the violent clatter of personal items hitting the floor suggested the shooter was as interested in vandalism as he was in murder.
He quietly crawled toward the hallway. Sweat burned his eyes and his shirt was soaked. He glanced over his shoulder. As he turned down the hallway, there would be a second when he was in plain sight. He lifted his head far enough to see the hooded figure turn to inspect a back cubicle.
He hustled around the corner, and once he was far enough down the hallway, he stood and sprinted to the storeroom. He fumbled with his keys, cursing Isabelle, the office manager, for talking him into regular doorknobs instead of the keypad entry ones he’d wanted to order.
“It’s a money saver,” he mocked quietly. “How about a lifesaver?” His hands shook as he tested each key. He knew he had one but he never used it. That’s what subordinates were for. He jammed key after key against the lock’s face but none of them worked.
As he stared at the ring, he finally remembered he’d given his storeroom key to Hannah, his personal assistant. He glanced down the hallway and saw the executive washroom and the west stairwell. He had to make a choice: Hide in the bathroom or try to chug down ten floors of stairs before the shooter caught up to him. He thought about the Lady in Heels. Certainly, she’d call the police.
He decided on the washroom. The door was solid oak with a deadbolt to ensure only those with the proper key could rest in luxury. After flipping the deadbolt latch, he slipped inside the stall. He sat down on the toilet and checked his watch—exactly nine thirty. This was his punishment for working so late. The property managers had made it very clear to him and his partners that they didn’t pay for late night or weekend security. If you had a heart attack working at your desk, you’d better have your cell phone with you because there wouldn’t be anyone nearby to help. That had certainly been true for his partner who’d died at his desk.
He clutched his chest and steadied his breathing. There was nothing he could do now except wait and hope that the police arrived quickly before the shooter found him and broke down the bathroom door.
He wiped his brow. Hurry, hurry. How long would it take them? What if the Lady in Heels didn’t call the police? What if she wasn’t real? He closed his eyes and bit his lip. I didn’t imagine her, did I? No. He’d distinctly heard the click-click of her shoes. He clasped his hands together, praying she would help him. Whoever she was, she’d get a raise.
The smell of industrial cleaner was giving him a headache. The cleaning crew was done and gone by nine, even that slow pig Iselda. Why did the company keep her?
For a fleeting second he wondered if he should change locations. He was a literal sitting duck in the bathroom, but his logical lawyer brain told him this was the best he could do. The police would be here soon. Maybe they were here now. Some would come up the stairs while another group would take the elevator. He imagined a gunfight might ensue, or a more likely possibility would be that the shooter would flee. His attempt at killing Victor certainly hadn’t gone as planned.
He pondered the identity of the shooter. The list of people who held a grudge against him was long. He’d made enemies as a family law attorney and his recent divorce had been messy. His ex certainly wished him dead. He wiped the sweat from his face with a shirtsleeve. If he got out of this alive, he vowed to be different. He’d treat people better. He’d exercise. Maybe his son Miguel would join a gym with him. He needed to lose a few pounds. He’d stop chasing tail and maybe his ex would take him back.
He glanced at the oak panels of the bathroom stall. This was safe—somewhat embarrassing—but safe. He’d send the Lady in Heels some flowers. It was the least he could do since she saved his life.
He checked his watch again. Two more minutes had passed. Where were those cops?
Then he heard a click and the hinge squeak he’d reported to maintenance three times. He’d forgotten one thing: the shooter might have a key to the executive washroom.
Perfect, Ari Adams mused. It was the most appropriate description of the glorious March day. She stretched her long legs and sipped the best coffee she’d ever tasted, thinking that her surroundings complemented the beautiful weather. The patio at the Groove on Grand was a blend of desert plants and flowerbeds bursting with color. She knew the marigolds, snapdragons and petunias were short-timers in Phoenix. Once the temperatures reached triple digits, the delicate flowers would wither, but for now the patio could be featured on Houzz.
She gazed across Grand Avenue at the O.S. Stapley Building, the new home of Southwest Realty. The sign painter had finished adding Ari’s name just yesterday, listing her as a broker alongside the company’s founder Lorraine Gonzalez. With a third business partner, they’d purchased the historic Stapley Building in addition to the Groove, an eclectic collection of structures that included the coffeehouse Scrabble and four brightly colored, identical cabins.
In a past life, the cabins had been located at a WWII internment camp on the outskirts of Phoenix, but now each one housed a different business. She loved that something from such a dark time could be repurposed in a positive way. The red cabin was The Pocket, the smallest bar in Phoenix, possibly the world. Ari’s best friend Jane Frank owned it and had emailed The Guinness Book of World Records to see if she could make such a claim about her two-hundred-square-foot bar. A jewelry designer worked in the yellow cabin and the lime-green cabin was an art studio. She heard the blue cabin’s front door close, and she smiled at the approach of Molly Nelson. Molly’s shirt was the same royal blue color as the cabin, and the words Nelson Security were embroidered on the front.
Molly carried her own cup of coffee and her portfolio. She leaned over and kissed Ari before dropping into a patio chair beside her. Their fingers automatically entwined and Ari smiled at the touch. Their relationship was nearly as perfect as the weather. They had been through a lot over the past two years, including a terrible breakup, but now they were stronger than ever. Ari credited their therapist with nudging them toward the answers that could make their relationship work.
Molly caressed the red tourmaline gem on Ari’s left ring finger. She’d given the ring to her for Christmas. Passing her broker’s exam before the holidays had been a great present, but the ring meant much more. It wasn’t an engagement ring. They were both clear on that point. That wouldn’t come for a long while if Dr. Yee got her way, and Ari was fine with that. Still, she wore it on her left hand to keep the men and women from hitting on her too much.
She and Molly were exactly six feet tall, but their height was their only physical similarity. Her own hair and skin were dark from her Mediterranean roots, and she’d been told she should’ve been a model since she was blessed with her mother’s exquisite long nose and high cheekbones. Molly’s pleasant face and curly blond hair had ensnared many women during her single life, but those days were over, as was the heavy drinking that accompanied the parade of women who’d left her apartment, a different one nearly every night. She was a recovering alcoholic, and the time she’d once devoted to clubbing was now spent working out. She was lean and toned, and when they went out together, women ogled both of them.
“When’s the interview?” she asked Molly.
“Not until nine.” Molly checked her watch. “I’m not worrying about it too much since I don’t think they’ll hire us.”
Ari cocked her head to the side. She knew Molly’s pessimism was a defense mechanism and Dr. Yee had encouraged her to challenge it. “Why not?”
“Their last P.I. was a one-man show and he charged a lot less. I’m not sure how because they’re a law firm of twenty-three attorneys, and they need a full-service investigative firm. I won’t do it any other way since I’m still establishing my brand and my reputation.”
Ari nodded. Nelson Security was a fledgling company, but it had gained positive notoriety after a former employee made headlines for saving dozens of lives. Although the employee had quit, Molly’s phone hadn’t stopped ringing, and she already needed to expand. They expected the business to outgrow the little blue cabin by the end of the year.
The backdoor of Scrabble opened and the manager, Chynna Grove, brought them a fresh pot of coffee and a carafe of creamer. “Knew you’d need a refill,” she said with a wink.
Chynna was part hippie and part punk rocker. Her retro sixties clothes were the real artifacts. Today she wore jeans with peace sign patches and a tie-dyed tank top. Her hairstyle and hair color changed monthly. Since it was March, her hair was green. When she bent over to fill Molly’s cup, Ari realized she could still see the Stapley Building through Chynna’s ear gauge.
Once the coffee was poured she said to Ari, “Something I need to tell you.” Molly’s phone rang and she excused herself to take the call. “That woman from the health department came by again yesterday right before Happy Hour started at the Pocket. Muriel somebody.”
“Oh really? What did she want?”
“She said there were still matters to discuss. I told her Jane wasn’t going to be in for the rest of the day, but instead of leaving, she ordered a seltzer water and sat herself down at this very table.”
“She was just hanging out?”
“I wouldn’t call it hanging out. She sipped her seltzer and wrote in a notebook. She watched the people and faced only the bar. She never got up again. A few of the lesbian customers were freaked out. They thought she was stalking them, but I explained who she was.”
“When did she leave?”
Chynna checked her phone. “She stayed until seven twenty-eight. I noted the exact time.”
While Jane had been granted a temporary liquor license for her tiny bar, apparently Muriel, one of the division supervisors, didn’t believe The Pocket qualified as a bar because of the very limited customer space (only three stools) and small square footage. She claimed there wasn’t enough room to implement all of the expected food and beverage health measures. Ari had told Jane not to worry, but since Jane was also a real estate agent, she’d heard horror stories about inspectors. She felt they had reason to worry about Muriel.
“I’ll talk with Jane today and let her know,” Ari said. “Maybe we could meet with Muriel.”
“Roger that,” Chynna said. She offered a wave and returned to Scrabble. Rush hour had started and cars headed downtown made a pit stop for the best coffee in the area. Ari leaned back and sighed. Business was good. Her relationship was good. The weather was perfect. She was about to declare it a great day when Molly rejoined her and groaned.
Molly took a final gulp of coffee and gathered her things. “That was Gloria Rivera, one of the partners with the law firm. There’s good news and bad news. The good news is that Nelson Security is hired, no interview needed. The bad news is that the principal partner in the law firm, Victor Guzman, was murdered in the office last night. Gloria asked me to come right now. If you’re free, wanna join me?”
They avoided the crime scene vehicles and news vans by parking on a side street. Ari followed Molly’s truck in her 4Runner as she had an appointment later that morning. As they walked together, she craned her neck to see the top of the twenty-story office building at the corner of Indian School Road and Central Avenue. “What do you know about this firm?” She was certain Molly had done her homework to prepare for the abandoned interview.
“Guzman, Rivera and Dorn is a well-known family law firm. Less than a year ago, Richard Dorn had a heart attack and died at his desk. His wife still sits on their Board of Directors. Gloria Rivera was one of the first Hispanic females to pass the bar in Arizona. She joined forces with Guzman back in the eighties after she struggled to start her own firm. She’s a great attorney, but she smacked against the glass ceiling and Victor offered to make her a name partner. Victor Guzman, the founder and the deceased, made his name via the good press he earned from arguing several unwinnable cases involving underdogs against big agencies. He took on Child Protective Services when they returned a five-year-old child to a sexual predator. He sued them on behalf of the aunt, who was the child’s last upstanding relative.”
“I remember that,” Ari said. “And wasn’t he the one who sued all those senior centers for elder abuse?”
“He was. He got ten million for the class-action suit that was distributed among eighty families.”
“Sounds like a do-gooder,” Ari concluded. “It’s rather surprising he’s dead if his press is to be believed.”
Molly offered a sideways grin. “If.”
The uniformed officers managing the crime scene entrance let them into the courtyard when they recognized Molly. Lawyers from the firm had been herded there, and it was a sea of suits, cell phones, colognes and expensive leather briefcases. Although it was only eight a.m., the heat was taking its toll. Several people fanned themselves with newspapers or file folders. March in Phoenix meant warm days and cool nights. Many of the men had their jackets slung over their shoulders with their ties loosened, although none of the women had compromised her appearance and could immediately walk into a courtroom for opening remarks. Ari knew from her experience as a police officer that women always had to be one notch better than their male counterparts. She imagined the legal profession was no different.
Most of the well-dressed people chatted in whispered tones, wearing serious expressions. They knew something tragic had occurred.
As she and Molly slowly drifted toward the entrance, Molly said, “Their business is shut down today. Wouldn’t you tell these people to go home?”
“That’s not gonna happen,” a voice muttered.
They looked to their left and saw a fresh-faced Hispanic man who appeared to be right out of college. With his suit jacket draped over his arm, his red suspenders were visible. They were imprinted with white dog bones, and Ari imagined they hugged the line of acceptable dress at Guzman, Rivera and Dorn.
Molly faced him. “What do you mean?”
He looked surprised and then noticed the logo on her shirt. “Security? Are you the new P.I. we’re supposedly getting?” She nodded and his gaze darted left and right. When he was confident no one of prominence was in earshot, he leaned toward them. “Isabelle the Hell will do whatever she can to get us back into the building ASAP. Time is money and several people are late for court. She’ll have us sitting on the floor if necessary.”
“Who’s Isabelle?” Ari asked.
“Isabelle is the office manager. She rides herd on all of us paralegals, as well as the secretaries.” He stuck out his hand in greeting. “I’m Xavier Yanez, one of the newest hires.”
Molly glanced toward the entrance. “So, Xavier, what are your initial impressions of Guzman, Rivera and Dorn?”
He bit his lip and Ari guessed he was sorry he’d opened his mouth. When he spoke it was with great care. “They’re highly professional and excellent advocates for the clients they serve. They’re demanding, but that’s because they represent their clients so well.”
Molly smirked and replied, “Xavier, I wasn’t asking for the company line. Your firm is about to become embroiled in a murder investigation.”
He swallowed and pulled at the knot of his tie. “So it’s true? Guzman’s dead? That’s the rumor flying around down here. A lot of people are talking and a few,” he said, throwing his chin toward a group of suits on their cell phones, “are starting to call headhunters.”
“It’s a little premature to think people are going to lose their jobs, isn’t it?” Ari asked.
He shook his head. “Oh no, they aren’t worried about being fired. They’re going to quit.” He whispered, “Mr. Guzman’s clients may have loved him, but he was…” Xavier paused before he said, “difficult to work for. Some of the serious expressions you see are because people think they’ll be accused of the crime.” He stuffed his hands in his pockets and glided away.
Molly exhaled. “Let’s find the ringmaster of this circus.”
They pushed their way toward the building entrance. Molly pointed at an older woman conferring with a much younger subordinate. Ari guessed this was Gloria Rivera, the only remaining name partner and the person with whom Molly would have interviewed. She looked out of place in a blue tracksuit and red baseball cap. Her eyes were puffy and Ari wasn’t sure if she’d been crying or if she was exhausted.
As they approached, Ari heard her say to the younger woman, “Tell Leslie my gray suit is to the far right in the closet. Then she’s to go to Eight C and bring me the flash drive in the top left drawer of his desk. That’s where he kept it.”
It only took a second for Gloria to recognize Molly. “Thank you for coming, Ms. Nelson. I’m Gloria Rivera and this is Brittany Spring, a paralegal. Please excuse my appearance.” She looked at Ari and frowned. “I didn’t realize you’d be bringing an associate.”
“This is Ari Adams, a friend and part-time investigator. We often collaborate on various projects.”
Gloria blinked, as if she thought she might know her. “Brittany, where can we have some privacy?”
Brittany, holding a clipboard pressed against her simple blue Oxford shirt, wore black Dockers and boots. She stood out as the only member of the firm not wearing a suit, save Gloria. The rest of her appearance was equally underwhelming. She wore little makeup and a unique butterfly pin held back her strawberry blond hair.
Scanning the courtyard and lobby, she replied, “I believe the area around the vending machines is open.”
Gloria gestured for her to lead them inside. As they proceeded through the lobby, Ari’s gaze flitted about the various crime scene personnel surrounding the information desk. The Chief of Police, Dylan Phillips, hovered over a computer monitor with an African-American man. When he lifted his head, she saw it was Andre Williams, Molly’s former partner when she was a detective. They were too engrossed in the computer to notice her and Molly. She exhaled, grateful that the first time she was introduced to Chief Phillips wouldn’t be at a crime scene. She knew, though, the time to meet her was fast approaching. The chief had been dating Ari’s dad for nearly three months. Since Jack Adams was officially retired and only a consultant, the rules of fraternization didn’t apply to him.
She glanced at Molly just in time to see her recognize Andre. She tensed and her lips formed a tight line. While Molly and Andre had remained close after Molly left Phoenix PD, they had never worked a case in their respective new roles. From the way Chief Phillips was speaking with Andre, Ari surmised he would be the lead detective on the Guzman murder. And Molly was the firm’s new hired gun. This could get interesting.
They turned down a short hallway. Two young men Ari assumed worked for the law firm laughed and joked as they enjoyed Cokes and candy. When they saw their boss approaching, they quickly adopted somber expressions and hustled past her with a brief, “Ma’am.”
Gloria turned to Brittany. “Please wait at the end of the hall and don’t let anyone disturb us until we’re allowed to go upstairs. And please text Leslie with those other matters.” She turned to Ari. “I’m sorry. What is your name again?”
Ari smiled and hoped she sounded sincere when she said, “I’m Ari Adams. Ms. Nelson thought it might be helpful to have another set of eyes and ears given the seriousness of this morning’s events.”
“Yes,” Molly interjected. “Who discovered the body? Have the police told you anything?”
Gloria shook her head. “All I know is the beginning. The office manager, Isabelle Medina, called me a little after six. She’s usually the first one in the office, followed at six fifteen by one or two of the paralegals. They’re responsible for making sure the attorneys going to court that day have everything they need. She found the tenth floor completely vandalized. Chairs and computers overturned, glass shattered on the floor in the kitchen, the copy machine destroyed. I told her I’d come at once. Then she called again, hysterical. She’d gone to the executive washroom because the hallway was flooded. One of the sinks had been plugged and the water on the floor had a red tinge.” Gloria took a breath as she prepared for the last sentence. “When she checked the stalls, she found Victor. I threw on this lovely ensemble,” she said, gesturing to the tracksuit, “and dashed here while Isabelle called the police.”
At a commotion in the lobby, they looked down the hallway to see the coroner’s stretcher pass. Gloria’s gaze dropped to the floor as she composed herself. When she looked up, fierce determination had replaced sorrow and grief. She folded her arms and raised her chin. “Ms. Nelson, my expectation is that you are now the firm’s advisor on this matter. I expect you to be a resource to the employees who might be interviewed, and since I’ve read your police file and know you personally apprehended dozens of criminals, I want you to investigate as well. I’ll make sure the staff fully cooperates. You’ll get whatever you need to find Victor’s murderer.”
“Excellent,” Molly said. “I’m sure the police will ask you for a complete staff list with addresses and phone numbers, as well as full access to every employee’s email.”
“Of course. I’ll get Isabelle on it immediately.”
Brittany reappeared and said to Gloria, “The police are ready to escort you upstairs.”
Gloria turned to Ari. “It took me a while to remember, but I’ve also read up on you, Ms. Adams. You may not be a licensed investigator, but you certainly get into a lot of trouble.” Ari looked surprised and Gloria offered a sly smile. “I think that’s a good thing.”
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