You know that sound when a tea kettle’s fucking a squeak toy so hard they’re both howling at the moon like helium-filled Chihuahuas? Tully has one of those voices, and it’s the first thing I hear to start my day—even before the waking groans of the woman wedged between my right side and the back of my couch.
I look around the living room with dry, itchy eyes, trying to find the bastard phone that dared to wake me up at…whatever time it actually is. Kiss my ass. Do you know how early it—
Oh wow, it’s almost lunch. Never mind, then. I answer the phone with a yawn.
“You wearing pants?” Tully asks. That’s her conversation opener.
She’s had that voice all her life, and it has always driven me nuts. Well, both of her lives, really—the true one, and the downright shitty one that came before it. It was a hard time for her back then, made harder by that god-awful stun-gunning-a-parakeet shrill of hers.
I move the phone an inch from my face and look down the length of couch at boxer shorts, bare knees, and ugly toes, trying to be professional for once and not fixate on the woman draped over me.
“Yep,” I lie. I can’t feel my entire right side, and it’s the best feeling ever.
“Yep, what?” moans the woman rubbing against me. I know what she’s yepping about, but it ain’t happening with Tully in my other ear. Not the kind of threesome I’m into, you know?
“Not you,” I whisper to my sleepover guest. “It’s my mother.”
Tully’s exasperated sigh crackles through the phone’s speaker. I’ve known this woman for the bigger part of both our lives, and I know she’s rolling her eyes so hard I’m surprised the phone’s not twisting in my hand.
“I have someone with me,” she clarifies. “Are you wearing pants or not?”
“Yeah, and?” I tell her. “I have someone with me, too.”
“Does she know you didn’t pop your cherry until you were twenty?”
The redhead using me as a body pillow grabs the phone, shoving a mess of wild curls away from her right ear. Her left cheek is on my chest, and the vibration when she talks is all manner of funky-sexy.
“Sweetie, I don’t care when he popped his cherry,” she says to Tully. Her eyes of deep-ocean blue light up with amusement. “Trust me, he’s learned a lot since then.”
She thinks that’s going to rile Tully up—which is possible since the word sweetie entered the conversation. But she’s also trying to make Tully jealous, which is as likely as me rolling off this couch onto a hammerhead shark.
I take the phone back and kiss her. We taste like sweat and beer and whiskey and whatever that nacho pizza thing was we ate last night. Twelve hours ago I was dying to know her name and hobbies and sixth-grade history teacher; but in the light of a new day, with our lips pressed together and her tongue against mine, I don’t especially care.
What am I saying? I’m never going to care. But not because I’m a dick, okay? For the record this was all her idea. She never asked my name either; specifically forbade me from offering it, in fact. That, to my mind, makes us even steven.
When I pull away from her intoxicating kiss I return my attention to my caller. “Are shorts okay?”
Tully doesn’t answer over the phone; instead, she shouts through the front door for me to hurry the fuck up. Right, because our time together on this planet has somehow instilled in her the rigid belief structure that shit like me hurrying up is remotely possible.
I stand and grab enough of last night’s clothes to accommodate unexpected guests, which turns out to just be the shorts, since I can’t find my T-shirt anywhere. Yank. Zip. Scratch. Burp. In that order. My companion watches me with hypnotically-blue eyes, the freckles dotting her silky-smooth landscape like a view of the night sky you can’t look away from. She’s making one hell of a case for me to forget my friend and return to stargazing, that’s for sure. She gets to her feet, her nude form now etched onto the pleasure centers of my brain, and I kiss her again as I smack her ass. She pokes me in the ribs as payback, and I grunt through the kiss.
Holy crap, this woman’s got fingers like cattle prods.
When another of Tully’s sighs escapes into the room, I put the phone to my ear. “Sorry, I’ll be with you in a second.” I watch my date expertly hook her bra. “You want some breakfast?” I ask her.
“If you don’t take care of your friend,” she says, nodding at the phone with a chuckle, “I think she’s going to burn the house down, with us inside it.”
As if to prove the point, Tully’s disembodied voice echoes softly, not-so-professionally telling the someone with her that she’s going to cut my balls off with a rusty butter knife.
While Jane Doe finishes dressing, I open the front door to greet my guests. Faster than I expected, Miss-Right-Now-and-Possibly-Again-Later moves past me gracefully, crossing the threshold and smacking my ass harder than I did hers. I flinch in shock, and feel my cheeks blush. Pretty sure I deserved that. She crosses the porch barefoot, her well-loved sandals dangling from long, thin fingers, and slips between Tully and some guy I’ve never met before. She waves a goodbye over her shoulder and disappears down the steps to her car, as I take in my wake-up call.
Tully’s in a floral print sun dress of blues and greens and yellows, her brown hair short and highlighted in a coppery bronze. She must have just gotten it done—only yesterday it was auburn, and at least two inches longer. She’s got that I’m dying to put a heel in your ass look that makes it hard to remember why I bothered answering the phone.
The man, by contrast, is a good decade younger than I am, tall and slender, with the kind of highlighted blond hair that comes from either a lifetime in the sun, or a fortune in chemicals. The words all-American immediately come to mind. He’s wearing khakis, ironed and creased, a dark blue polo, and penny loafers with no socks. He looks like he flipped through a Brooks Brothers catalog once upon a time and went with the first ensemble that didn’t make him gag.
Tully’s accusing gaze drops from my bare chest to my shorts. “You zipped up. So much for first impressions.”
“Too much to live up to.”
She arches an eyebrow. “Not when you look like the community strap-on at a sorority house during pledge week.”
You imagined that with her squeak-toy voice, didn’t you? Welcome to my world.
By way of ignoring her I say, “Good morning, Mr.—”
“Sandecker,” the man says, smiling brightly and extending a hand. He winks at me conspiratorially, as if I needed his approval of my choice of overnight houseguests.
His handshake is hard, but the skin is soft. No calluses to speak of. His nails are trimmed, but there’s a touch of dirt or something under them. He’s solid underneath the polo and slacks; muscled, but wiry. I probably looked like that once upon a time, before beer and whiskey and redheads proved healthier for my psychological well-being than bran muffins and whatever the fuck quinoa is. He strikes me as having all the benchmarks of a blue-collar upbringing morphing into a white-collar job.
I introduce myself and motion into the house. “Please, come in.”
Despite any assumptions, my home is spotless. Always is. You don’t go through a life like mine without some things sticking to you like chlamydia.
Actually, let’s go with glue. It’s cliché as hell, but that other one is more of an evening look.
I park Tully and Sandecker in the dining room before continuing to the kitchen. Food for me; coffee for everyone.
I prep the coffee and settle for a quick helping of Cocoa Pebbles in a paper bowl, eating half of it before I remember to press the start button on the coffee maker. Then I refill the bowl and join my guests in the dining room.
“Mr. Sandecker would like to hire us,” Tully says, meaning the company that employs her. She’s in work mode, and I treat the situation accordingly. “And we would like to hire you.” She still means the company she works for.
I eat my chocolatey goodness and nod, wiping rivulets of milk off my chin and chest. I’m not making the best of impressions here, but it’s been an off morning. Tully looks ready to slap a bib on me. This guy Sandecker must think I’m some kind of wackadoo.
For the record, I’m not a private investigator or anything along those lines. They’re usually licensed, trained, and capable, and I just don’t have that kind of time or commitment. I’m more of a walking fuck-up with stellar luck, a few random skills of not-altogether-legal origins, and exceptional taste in comebacks. I’m also cheap and generally available. Discreet, too, if only because no one really likes talking to me. Feeling’s mutual, by the by.
Sandecker sits up straighter and clears his throat. “Miss Tullinger assures me we can come to a, ah, mutually…beneficial arrangement, given the—” he gestures frantically, trying to find the words, “—given the unlikely nature of the offering.”
It’s clear he’s uncomfortable with large words, wearing them like a kid in his father’s suit: everything’s technically where it’s supposed to be, but nothing fits right. I’ve dealt with the type all my life. Hell, I am the type. His questionable taste in attire notwithstanding, I decide I like the guy, with provisions. Things change, you know?
“Please, call me Jeff.”
The coffee maker beeps. I excuse myself and return to the kitchen, tossing the paper bowl in the sink out of habit. Three cups, coming up.
Tully comes in to help, grabbing sugar and powdered creamer from the pantry and spoons from the silverware drawer.
“Who was she?” she asks. There’s no accusation in her tone, only a lifelong friend’s playful ribbing.
“To ask would’ve been an invasion of her privacy.” Tully shoots me an I’m calling bullshit look, and I shrug. “What? I just went out for a beer or five. She picked me up. It’s not like she introduced herself, either.”
“Did you at least offer her breakfast?”
“I slipped her some sausage. Not sure that counts, though.” Tully groans and rolls her eyes, which is exactly the reaction I wanted. We return to the dining room, and I hand Sandecker a mug. “Jeff, If Tully vouches for you, then trust me, we’re as golden as Gert Fröbe.”
He doesn’t get my Goldfinger reference. Unappreciated in my own time, I tell you. Tully dumps sugar and creamer into her coffee. Jeff—that’s Sandecker to you dirty heathens—takes his black.
“Tell me what I can do for you, Jeff,” I say after we’ve all taken our first sips.
He’s eying my dining room nervously, like it’s a CIA interrogation unit, but then he sighs and his shoulders slump. It’s a good act, but it feels rehearsed.
“I need you to retrieve a box.”
He stops there and looks around like this is Three Days of the Condor or something. That would make me either Cliff Robertson or Max von Sydow, depending on your preference. I mean, that’s as it may be, but there’s no way in hell Sandecker is Robert Redford. And the idea that Tully is Faye Dunaway almost makes me laugh out loud in front of my guests. Wouldn’t that be a hell of a way to start things off?
The point is, Sandecker’s not acting nervous, per se, but something outside this room has got his attention, and he’s not willing to share it with the class just yet.
“Mr. Red—” Tully shoots me a look as I clear my throat to cover the gaffe. Fuck me, that was close. “I’m sorry, Jeff. If this is a secrecy thing, I get it. But if you want me to help you, cut the crap and tell me what you need.”
There’s a bump under the table, and Tully swears under her breath. She tried to kick me, but hit table leg instead. I shoot her a shit-eating grin while Sandecker nods quickly.
“It’s a puzzle box,” he says. “Roughly the size of a hardcover book. Maybe a little smaller. I’m not worried about the box itself, only the contents.”
Now we’re getting somewhere. “How heavy is it?”
“No more than six pounds, including contents.”
“Anything dangerous—explosive, corrosive, et cetera, et cetera?”
He looks like I challenged him to a duel. “No, nothing like that. It’s just a—”
I raise a hand to shut him up. “I don’t need to know. Really, I don’t. If you’re not paying me to look inside it, then I’m not looking inside it.” Sandecker nods, and I continue. “How many people are aware of it?”
“At my end, just the three of us. And my administrative assistant, Loretta.”
“How much does she know?”
“Right now, more than you. But not everything.”
Snark. Nice. That means he’s getting comfortable around me, and that will help greatly. “Have you told her about this little tête-à-tête?”
Yes, I know that’s literally French for head-to-head, and that it specifically refers to two people. I get that. Now shut the hell up.
Sandecker shakes his head. “I was going to after I left.”
“Don’t. Keep it to yourself. The fewer people who know I’m involved, the better.”
“Done. No problem.”
He doesn’t even put up a fight, which tells me he just straight-up lied to me. See? This is why I put provisions on liking people.
“And on the other end?” I ask.
“You told me about your end—who knows about this on the other end?”
His eyes flick up and to the right, which indicates he’s trying to recall something, instead of preparing to spout off another lie. “Six, maybe seven people.”
Allowing for ignorance and/or deception, intentional or otherwise, that means at least a dozen others know about it. I don’t like those odds.
“Where was it last seen?”
Sandecker hesitates, casting a quick look to Tully, and I instantly hate where this is going. “There’s going to be an exchange tonight,” he says.
Fuck me. Of course there is. I see Tully in my peripheral, flashing me the same shit-eating grin I used on her.
“And the details?” I prod.
He scoots in his chair and clears his throat. “Still being ironed out.”
“Give them to Tully the second you hear.”
I can’t get a read on Sandecker, but Tully is uncharacteristically diplomatic. Normally when she brings clients to me, she’s more upbeat, more loquacious. Right now she’s quiet, and with her that’s never good. If she was in charge and uncomfortable with the case, she’d have politely recommended Sandecker to someone else. Since the two of them are sitting at my dining table, however, my guess is her doubts were overruled by her employers, much to her chilly chagrin.
Not much I can do about that, but I can help calm her fears by taking the job. That way she’ll have someone on this she trusts, in case shit goes south. Already I’m planning my moves. I won’t be on the exchange’s approved guest list, so I’ll get to dust off my interloper skills. Goodie. I’ve been looking for a chance to play wedding crasher again.
Yep, just like Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn. Only, you know, with more stunted emotional development and far less Rachel McAdams and Isla Fisher.
“Anything else I need to know at the moment?” I ask to conclude the meeting.
Sandecker shrugs and looks to Tully for verification. She nods and Sandecker looks back to me. “I think we’re good. But I’ll keep you updated as things change.”
I stand to refill the mugs, glad to have a job right now, but confident in no way whatso-fucking-ever that I’ll be updated of anything.