No Way Out
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by Freda Vasilopoulos
Description: Bicycle courier Jenny Gray uses a transparent pretext to meet Theo Zacharias, never guessing they would be attracted to each other. When threats both to her and to him accelerate, she realizes she has put him in grave danger. How can she tell him the truth--that he has been targeted by a hit man for murder and she delivered the money to pay for it? Romantic Suspense by Freda Vasilopoulos writing as Tina Vasilos; originally published by Harlequin Intrigue
eBook Publisher: Belgrave House, 1997
eBookwise Release Date: July 2012
1 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [321 KB]
Reading time: 206-288 min.
"It just came in. Swift Couriers may be small but they're efficient. The owner herself delivered it. I trust the envelope contains a thousand in cash, the down payment as we agreed?"
"You mean you haven't opened it."
"No, I was away from my desk but I'll get it in the morning. It's safe enough for tonight, as long as the money's in there."
"It is, and you'll get another thousand when the job is over. So you'll do it?"
"Yeah, I'll do it. I'm watching him all the time. So far he doesn't suspect a thing."
"Well, start putting the pressure on. I want him to sweat." The speaker gave a nasty laugh that grated like a rat gnawing a bone. "If you do a good job, you'll get the rest of the money and maybe a way to earn a bonus. And be careful. You've got until April 13. I'll be in touch with further instruction before then."
"Don't worry. I know what to do. By April 13, Theo Zacharias will be glad to have someone put him out of his misery."
Jenny stared at the phone in her hand as if she expected green slime to ooze from the little holes in the receiver. Hot and cold flashes chased each other through her body, leaving behind nausea and an overwhelming urge to scream.
She'd picked up the phone in her office, only to encounter an open line and distant voices. Some anomaly of electronics? The building was old, the wiring outdated. She'd heard voices in the background of telephone calls before but only snatches of words had been decipherable. Except for the distortion in the voices that made them metallic and genderless, this conversation had been clear enough for her to understand virtually everything.
Someone on an extension phone?
Letting the receiver clatter to the desk top, she jumped up from her chair. She strode across her office and yanked open the door to the reception area. The room was deserted, the desk bare except for the computer and the empty In basket. Jenny glanced at her watch: 5:26. Cindi Brown, her receptionist, had gone home long ago. As Jenny would have, if she hadn't had a call from a bank at four fifteen to make a last-minute delivery.
The fateful package destined to ruin or end a man's life.
She crossed over to the little room on the other side, where her employees ate lunch and changed their clothes at the end of the day. It, too, was deserted, as was the washroom beyond. She tested the handle of the door leading to the hall. Locked. No one could have gotten in or out without a key.
She closed her eyes as a new wave of nausea churned in her stomach. Pressing her hand to her waist, she rounded up her scattered wits. Think.
Yes, do something. Damage control. Maybe it wasn't too late.
Back in her own office, she snatched up her purse and keys. She slammed the door behind her and headed for the hall. Locking the outer door, she moved stealthily to the next office down the dingy corridor. The warped wooden floors creaked despite her care in placing her sneakered feet. She wrinkled her nose against the familiar smell of old water leaks and decaying linoleum. She should be used to it by now, after three years in the building, but tonight it seemed unusually oppressive.
The next office was locked, as she'd expected, the shiny brass dead bolt gleaming in the dim light, at odds with the ancient oak panels. So was the one across the hall, and the others beyond it. The entire floor was deserted.
Giving up, Jenny stabbed the elevator button with her finger, praying this wasn't one of the days it went on strike. A reassuring wheeze issued from the depths of the shaft visible through the rusting ornamental grill.
Stepping through the opening that parted reluctantly to admit her, she pressed the down button. As the car jerked downward, she leaned her head on the flimsy panel behind her, closing her eyes to shut out the image of her dead-white face. Diabolical convention, mirrors in elevators. No place to look but at your own mottled reflection, the sickly blue light unflattering and aging, too much a reminder of one's mortality.
The elevator stopped with a jolt. Theo Zacharias. Someone was going to kill him, unless she stopped it. She pulled open the clanking door and escaped the cage.
Theo Zacharias. Who was he? Where was he? She had to find out.
Free of the run-down building, she gulped fresh air, swallowing the gentle rain as if it were nectar. Spring--when did it officially start, tomorrow or the next day? It hardly mattered, since it appeared to have arrived on its own. The mild evening enveloped her, softly warm and scented with the tiny purple violets unobtrusively growing in a little pocket of soil next to the building.
I'm watching him all the time. The words played through her mind, chasing away the brief feeling of well-being. His office, perhaps? Someone who worked with him? That was the logical place to start, the place where she'd delivered the envelope. From the conversation, she knew it had to be the last delivery she'd made, the envelope she'd picked up at the bank and taken to an investment office.
Dodging commuters waiting for buses to convey them from downtown Vancouver to their cozy lives in the suburbs, she ran down the street. The building was only three blocks away, but its marble trimmed elegance appeared a world removed from her dingy office on Hastings Street. She entered the ground floor shopping mall, catching the elevator just as its doors began to close.
More marble and mirrors, plate glass with no pockmarks. Going up, the car was virtually empty. She stepped off on the fifth floor, shouldering her way through the well-dressed brokers and lawyers who waited for the downward trip. Conversation broke off and she felt the hostile stares they sent after her. So she looked a sight, her dark brown hair curling in the damp like the Medusa's snakes. Why should she care what they thought?
The long corridor stretched before her, hushed and empty. Her sneakers fell silently on the thick carpet. She had delivered the envelope at four forty-five. The office, Pacific Rim Investments, had been bustling then, phones discreetly chirping, deals being made. The perfectly coifed receptionist in her pink designer suit had tossed the envelope into a basket along with a stack of documents just dropped off by a UPS driver.
Jenny stopped in front of the double doors, heavy glass elegantly lettered in gold leaf. The place was closed, as she might have expected. The reception area was dimly lit by a single lamp glowing in the corner behind the desk. Her own image appeared as a blurred shadow on the plate glass.
She cupped her hands around her eyes and stuck her nose against the cold pane. Nothing moved. The reception desk was clear except for a telephone with an integrated answering machine.
The latch rattled faintly as Jenny tugged on the handle. Locked up as tight as a vault. She'd never get inside unless she smashed the glass. And then she would still have the task of finding and retrieving the envelope she'd delivered, from wherever they'd put it.
The clatter of wheels registered in a distant corner of her mind as she bit her lip, debating her next move. She had to get the envelope back. Somehow. Tonight. She had no doubt that the frighteningly efficient receptionist, Ms. Herrington, would deliver it promptly at nine when the office opened.
"Eh, you there, what are you doing?"
The gravely voice behind her nearly made her jump out of her skin. She jerked away from the door, spinning around to face a stout, gray-haired woman wearing rose polyester pants and an orange tunic.
"Uh, I'm looking for someone," Jenny stammered. "I was supposed to meet them here, but it looks as if the office is closed." She knew she was babbling but either that or the scowling woman would hear the loud thump of her heart.
The woman angled a nicotine-yellowed thumb toward the discreet lettering near the bottom of the door. "Closes at five, says here," she stated, unbending slightly. "I've never seen it open a minute longer, and I been cleaning this building for nigh on twenty years."
Twenty years? "Do you clean in there, too?"
"Not me. I just do all the halls and lobbies. The offices hire their own services. If you want in there, come back tomorrow."
"Yes, I'll have to, won't I?" Jenny hastened to make what she hoped was a dignified retreat, but she was acutely conscious of the woman's suspicious gaze on her until she turned the corner near the elevators.
She drove home through the remnants of rush hour traffic, miserably calling herself a failure. And worse. Even the sight of the North Shore mountains, iridescent pink in the sunset as the clouds parted briefly, didn't cheer her. By the time she crossed the bridge into Surrey, the glow had faded and the clouds were again releasing a dreary drizzle that fogged up her car windows no matter how she adjusted the ventilation.
She parked in front of the anonymous three-story building where she rented an apartment. The building stood behind a shopping mall, which was convenient but sometimes noisy at night when the pub closed and its patrons poured out into the parking lot. Luckily her bedroom window faced the adjacent street.
Glancing over the mail she picked up in the tiny lobby, she trudged down the hall, inhaling the scent of bacon that someone was frying for supper.
Her apartment, a featureless unit probably identical to most of the others in the building, consisted of a living room with a kitchen alcove, a bedroom, and a bathroom smaller than the average walk-in closet. Its only virtues were the reasonable rent and the certainty that her neighbors were quiet and fairly law abiding.
Three years ago, after she'd quit her job with Social Services, she'd given up her pleasant west end apartment. During the early stages of her business, when money had been even tighter than now, she'd lived in a downtown flat where it quickly became apparent her neighbors were drug dealers. After the third late night police raid, she'd packed up and left without notice, feeling her landlord didn't deserve the courtesy after allowing his property to become a haven for criminals.
This apartment, cheerless as it was, especially on a rainy night, might not feel much like a home, but it was a place to sleep and eat. Her business was her life. Even though it was hardly prosperous and sometimes precarious, it gave her the satisfaction of providing employment to young women who would otherwise be earning minimum wages in part-time jobs with no benefits. She could accomplish in a small way what she'd failed to do working for Social Services.
At three in the morning she lay awake staring at the ceiling. Occasional car headlights strafed briefly along the wall. The scent of rain and blooming hyacinths crept in through the window she'd left open a crack.
Theo Zacharias. What kind of man was he? What had he done to cause someone to hate him enough to pay another person to harass him and perhaps murder him? No matter what, she had to find him and warn him. She only hoped her hunch that he worked at Pacific Rim Investments was right. If he didn't--
She rolled over, moaning and clutching her aching head. If he didn't, where would she start in her search?
A thought struck her. The phone book. She snapped on the lamp, and dragged the heavy book out of the night table drawer. Turning to the Z section, she ran her finger down the row of names. She groaned when she saw how many listings there were for Zacharias, including half a dozen T. Zachariases with or without another initial. It was hopeless; she had no idea where he lived.
Muttering in frustration, she let the book slide to the floor. It landed with a dull thud. Turning off the light, she buried her face in the pillow.
At ten to nine the elevator whisked her and assorted well-dressed executives up to the fifth floor. Wearing the cream wool suit, silk stockings, and high heels she usually reserved for meetings with bankers or accountants, she walked up to the doors of Pacific Rim Investments. Although Ms. Herrington sat behind the desk, the door remained locked. Jenny rapped on the glass. The woman looked up from filing her perfectly painted nails and pointed to the legend at the bottom of the door.
"It's urgent," Jenny mouthed.
Ms. Herrington pursed her glossy red lips and shook her head.
Fuming, Jenny paced for ten minutes, her toes pinched in the dress shoes she seldom wore any more. The pain aggravated her anxiety. She had to get back the envelope. She had to.
She heard the mellow chime of a clock toll the hour, and tightened her grip on the handle as Ms. Herrington leisurely strolled across the carpet and unlocked the door.
"About bloody time," Jenny muttered beneath her breath.
The thin brows arched upward. "I beg your pardon?" The young woman blinked. "Oh, you're the bicycle lady."
"Yes," Jenny said, her jaw clenched. "I'm the bicycle lady. That envelope I delivered last night--I need it back. It was a mistake."
"Sorry. I can't do that." Ms. Herrington seated herself behind her desk, crossing her legs. "It was addressed to the company, and once it's in my hands, it becomes company property."
Jenny glanced at the basket, yesterday bulging with mail but now pristinely empty. Her heart sank. "Then do you remember who you delivered it to?"
Ms. Herrington shook her head, her artfully tousled hair not even stirring. "Sorry, you made the delivery so close to closing time last night everything was put in the safe for the night. I just sorted them this morning and put them on the proper people's desks. It's impossible to remember every one. And some people pick up their mail on their way in, sometimes as early as six--that's when the eastern markets open. So I might not have handled it at all."
She put her hand on the telephone as it chirred gently. "If there's nothing else, I'll bid you good morning." She lifted the receiver. "Good morning, Pacific Rim Investments. How may I help you?"
Her tone rivaled the purr of a well-fed cat, Jenny thought uncharitably. She stared at the abstract painting on the wall before her, balancing on one leg to rub the aching toes of the other against her calf. What should she do now? The envelope she'd delivered had had only the company name printed on it. Inside would have been another, smaller envelope containing the money and showing the recipient's name.
"Are you still here?"
The voice, laced with annoyance rather than its mellow purr, jolted her back to the present. Jenny turned. "Yes, I'm still here. Does a Theo Zacharias work here?"
The woman frowned. "Yes, but Mr. Zacharias won't be back until late this afternoon. I can give you an appointment for tomorrow, if you wish one." Her tone said she couldn't imagine what possible business a bicycle courier would have with a financial planner.
"Tomorrow is too late." Jenny turned away, desperation clawing in her stomach.
"Mr. Zacharias likes to take care of his paperwork when he returns from a business trip. Tomorrow afternoon is the earliest appointment I can give you."
She'd see about that, Jenny thought with renewed determination. "All right. I'll call you later after I look at my schedule."
"As you wish." She handed Jenny a glossy brochure. "Here is a list of our services. You might like to look it over."
"Thanks." Jenny rolled it around her clutch purse.
Out in the corridor, instead of heading back toward the elevator, Jenny walked toward the red exit sign. Sure enough, directly opposite the fire door, a plain wooden door bore the name of Pacific Rim Investments, Employees Only. It was locked, but at that moment a balding man carrying a briefcase emerged from the fire exit, fitted a key into the lock, and went inside.
Smiling faintly, she turned toward the elevator. This afternoon she would be waiting outside this door. She would meet Theo Zacharias.
"Where have you been?" Cindi's husky voice greeted her as Jenny walked into the office. "You're late," she added without looking up from the scattered notes she was transcribing into the computer.
"I had an errand," Jenny said, pleased to see the signs of industry.
Cindi, an attractive woman in her mid-thirties, raised her gaze from the computer terminal. Her mouth dropped open. "My, my, looks like going-to-the-bank-for-a-loan clothes you're wearing today. And heaven knows, we could use the extra money."
"Sorry. No money. Any messages?" Jenny checked the Out basket.
"None I couldn't take care of. Lots of orders, though, which is good. Bad news is that we've lost one of the bikes. It disappeared while Sandra made a drop-off at the bus depot."
Jenny groaned. Unlike most messenger services who expected their employees to supply their own bikes, Jenny owned the fleet of bikes her couriers used. Most of the young women she employed would not have been able to afford one of their own. All the bikes were equipped with sophisticated locks to secure them during deliveries but, despite that, once in a while a thief managed to steal one. "I suppose she used the lock?"
Cindi ran a hand through her short, sleek blonde hair. "She says so. She's really upset but she said she'd take the nearby deliveries. Walk them."
"Okay. When she comes in, I'd like to talk to her. Have you notified the police, given them the serial number?"
"Of course. I did it first thing."
"Well, maybe we'll be lucky and get it back. Whoever's got it must be feeling pretty conspicuous by now riding a bright pink bike."
Cindi smiled. "Let's hope. Although it'll probably be damaged. That's what happened last time one was ripped off."
"At least it was repairable, only a bent wheel." Jenny moved past the desk to enter her own office, but at the door she paused and turned. "Cindi, you haven't had any problems with the phone lines lately, have you?"
Cindi's brows lifted. "Why, have we been billed for calls we didn't make?"
This had happened before. The phone bill they'd received around Christmas had contained five calls to numbers Jenny had never heard of. The phone company had credited them, no problem, with the unsatisfactory explanation of computer error during a heavy usage period. "No, not lately. But the lines are noisy sometimes."
"I've noticed that, too," Cindi said. "But I haven't had any problems, other than a bit of static."
"What about voices?"
Cindi laughed. "No, not voices. If I start hearing voices, I'll know I've gone over the edge." The phone rang. "Good morning, Swift Couriers."
Frowning, but slightly relieved that the problem with the phones must have been a one-time aberration, Jenny went into her office and sat down behind her desk. She settled down to her own work, going through the basket of neatly organized invoices that Cindi had left for her.
Not for the first time she thought she was lucky to have found a receptionist as efficient as Cindi. She'd worked for Swift Couriers for a year now, and Jenny considered her a friend as well as an employee. Although Cindi sometimes seemed a bit moody, she worked hard and was completely reliable. And, unlike her predecessor, she never mixed up the delivery orders.
Jenny peeked around the door of the women's washroom. She'd heard the stair door open, but the man who entered the employee door of Pacific Rim Investments couldn't be Theo Zacharias. Wrong age and coloring. She had an idea what Theo Zacharias looked like, thanks to the glossy company brochure Ms. Herrington had given her that morning.
She glanced at her watch. Twenty after four. She had taken the precaution of calling earlier, and asking in a disguised voice what time Mr. Zacharias would be in. No use taking a chance of missing him, or waiting in the hall when he was already inside. Four o'clock, Ms. Herrington had informed her.
Fortunately she could watch both doors from her vantage point. Standing in the hall would have been too conspicuous, but luckily the washroom provided fairly adequate cover. She ducked back inside and checked her hair, patting the springy curls coiled ruthlessly into a knot at the back of her head. She secured a pin that was working its way loose, and rubbed away a smudge of mascara from beneath her eye. He'd better come soon. Her feet were killing her, and the smooth facade of makeup and dignified hairstyle was beginning to unravel, hinting at the turmoil inside her.
She turned away, leaning against the cool tile wall. What if he didn't show up and her lurking outside the door this afternoon proved to be a big waste of time? What then?
Should she go to the police? In the dark hours of the night, she'd mentally tallied the pros and cons of reporting what she'd heard. And she'd decided to hold off.
First of all, they probably wouldn't take her seriously enough to launch an investigation. They'd likely dismiss the conversation as a joke or a misunderstanding. They had enough to do with criminals walking out on parole every day and repeating their crimes in endless rotation.
But if they believed her, they might very well consider her an accomplice in the matter. And if she were arrested, she wouldn't be able to warn Theo. She didn't have much faith in the police department's ability to protect him. She'd had enough experience when she'd been a social worker. They didn't have the manpower to protect a battered woman facing a murderous husband, never mind putting a guard on a man who hadn't been directly threatened except in the vaguest terms.
No, she had to handle it herself, at least for now.
The wheeze of the hydraulic door closer told her someone else had come out of the stairwell. She poked her head cautiously around the doorframe. A tall man in a slate gray suit was just inserting a key into the lock. Theo Zacharias. It had to be him.
She'd given plenty of thought to how she could approach him. For obvious reasons a direct confrontation wouldn't do. Hello, Mr. Zacharias. Someone's going to kill you so you should be careful. Get a bodyguard or something until after April 13.
He'd laugh her out of his office. For the same reason, she hadn't told Cindi about the overheard conversation. It was too bizarre.
No, she had almost a month, since today was March 21. She would introduce herself as a potential client and make it up as she went along.
Jenny squared her shoulders and gave her hair a final pat. Here goes nothing, she thought, heart hammering against her ribs. Tucking her purse securely under her arm, she smoothed her skirt and walked up to him. "Mr. Zacharias? Mr. Theo Zacharias?"
The man straightened. Awareness and apprehension jolted through her. The small black and white photo in the company brochure didn't do him justice. It hadn't prepared her for the impact of silver gray eyes dominating a lean, dark face. Those eyes bored into her as if she were a particularly loathsome object he'd found on the bottom of his shoe.
She dropped her own gaze, taking note of the perfectly tailored suit that didn't even show a wrinkle despite the trip he must have just returned from. Beside him, she felt like a poor relative come to beg a handout. Stupid way to feel, she thought, reminding herself of her real purpose.
She bravely looked up. He was handsome without being pretty, the clean planes and angles of his face showing strong character. Early to mid-thirties, she guessed. His black hair lay close to his head, unruly curls barbered into submission by an expert.
He still watched her, his eyes direct and disconcerting, silver irises outlined in black. The annoyance in them was suddenly gone, replaced by an emotion she could only interpret as shock, mixed with--was it recognition? He blinked, the dense, long lashes fluttering down and then up. The odd expression she'd seen faded--or maybe she had imagined it.
Her gaze slid lower. His mouth, wide and generous in repose, tightened, his lips twisting cynically.
"May I help you?" he said coldly.
"You are Theo Zacharias, aren't you?" she said a little uncertainly. She stiffened her legs, afraid he would hear her knees knocking together.
His eyes narrowed. "Who wants to know?"
Jenny nearly choked on the butterflies creeping up from her stomach. Pasting a wide smile on her face, she stuck out her right hand. "My name is Jenny Gray. I know a cousin of yours who recommended you."
He glanced at her hand as if it held a dead fish. "I have no cousins."
"Oh, come on, everyone has cousins." As soon as the words came out, Jenny clapped her hand over her mouth, wishing she could stuff them back.
His straight brows lifted, his expression becoming more austere if that were possible. "I don't. Good day, Miss Gray."
He'd caught her name. That was something. But he'd opened the door and was halfway through it. She was losing him. "Mr. Zacharias, wait. I've got something very important to discuss with you."
Again the skeptical twist of his mouth. "Oh? Then make an appointment for tomorrow. I've just returned from a business trip and I can't see you now."
She grabbed the door before he could close it in her face. For an instant they were locked in a struggle. She wasn't sure what he saw in her face, but suddenly he wrapped his fingers around her wrist and dragged her inside. The lock clicked behind her.
Theo Zacharias stared at the woman who sat on the edge of the chair across from his desk. He'd acted like a jerk, and he was sorry, although he wasn't sure how to let her know that. His business in Japan hadn't gone as well as he'd hoped, customs had searched his suitcase, and the taxi had gotten a flat tire on the way in from the airport. All of it had combined to put him in a very bad mood, but that didn't give him the right to take it out on her.
But for some reason, the first sight of her, after his initial irritation at being accosted in the hall, had thrown him. Somewhere in the recesses of his soul he'd recognized her. He was sure they'd never met, yet he'd taken one look at those blue, blue eyes and felt as if he'd fallen down a well.
He'd quickly pulled himself together. It must be jet lag clouding his reason, feeding some insidious fantasy.
He looked at her objectively, closing off his emotions. It took surprising effort to engage the skill he thought he'd perfected after the debacle of his marriage.
Pretty face, not that he took much stock in outward appearances, having learned the hard way how beauty could mask deception. Marvelous hair, thick and dark and about to burst loose from the knot she'd wound it into. The escaping strands curled around her face in charming disarray, practically begging for a man's hands to run through them. His hands. He clenched them on his knees, beneath the desk.
A pink flush highlighted her strong cheekbones, betraying her uneasiness. Her eyes gazed back at him, as deeply blue as the sea in his native Greece. A cliche, perhaps, but they were the exact shade that stained the far horizon, the edge of the earth as he'd imagined when he was a child.
She blinked, dark lashes feathering her cheeks, briefly hiding the smudges beneath her eyes. She looked almost as tired as he felt, as if she'd slept badly last night, or not at all. Her mouth, naked of lipstick, parted briefly as if she were about to speak. Wordlessly she snapped it shut again.
He leaned back, folding his arms over his chest. Outside the closed door of his office, he could hear the usual bustle of his colleagues packing up and going home.
The back of his neck ached. Too many hours on a plane, and then the endless line at customs. Well, good thing he wasn't still in Japan. He'd heard in the taxi coming downtown that they'd had a major earthquake.
"Miss Gray," he said, stifling an exasperated sigh, "I'd suggest you state your business so we can both go home and get some rest."
She twisted her hands nervously in her lap, setting small white teeth into the lush pink cushion of her bottom lip. A tiny coil of warmth stirred in his gut. With the ease of long practice, he repressed it, reminding himself he still didn't know her reasons for accosting him.
"I--I need some financial advice." The words came out so fast they all slurred together.
This time he let the sigh escape. "Can't it wait until normal office hours?"
"No, it can't. I need to know how I can reduce the amount of income tax I have to pay and there's less than six weeks until the return is due." She stretched her lips in what should have been a smile but looked more like a grimace. A tiny muscle ticked at the corner of her eye. She rubbed at it, and then pressed her fingers to her brow as if her head hurt.
He found it easy to sympathize. His own temples were beginning to ache. "Miss Gray, if you haven't maximized your pension contributions by now, there's not a lot I can do."
Her bottom lip trembled, and his heart contracted. She looked defenseless, almost as if she were afraid of something. "I still need your advice."
He didn't believe it for a moment. Oh, he knew she wanted something, but it wasn't financial advice and for the life of him he couldn't figure out what it was or why she didn't come right out and say so. He got to his feet, wincing slightly as a muscle cramped in his back. For an instant the room swayed around him. He rubbed his hand over his face. Jet lag catching up. His brain felt stuffed with cotton wool.
Knuckles rapped on the door briefly before it opened and Douglas Stevens looked in. "Oh, sorry, Theo, I didn't know you had company." His eyes lit up appreciatively. His lips pursed in a silent whistle as he looked the woman up and down.
Weary as he was, Theo felt a stab of annoyance. Stevens figured he was Vancouver's stud of the year and he practiced on every woman who crossed his path.
"Can I help you, Doug?" Theo said acerbically.
"Just checking if you're going to be here long."
"I'm about to leave," Theo said. "Are you locking up?"
"Yeah, I'll wait for you." Stevens withdrew.
The phone rang. Inside line. Theo picked it up and punched the flashing button. "Yes, Janice?"
"Just checking to make sure you're in, Theo," the receptionist said sweetly. "You wouldn't be interested in going out for a drink, would you?"
Theo clenched his teeth. She never gave up, no matter how many times he rebuffed her subtle and not so subtle advances. "Not tonight," he said in a neutral tone. "Sorry."
"Some other time, then. Good night, Theo."
He barely restrained himself from slamming the phone down.
Stuffing the pile of mail into his briefcase, he snapped it closed and walked around the desk. He held out his hand to his visitor. "Tomorrow, Miss Gray. Come and see me at nine tomorrow."
She stared silently up at him, her fingers cool against his. Her eyes looked wide and stricken, and he could have sworn he saw tears swimming in their blue depths. "I'm sorry," he murmured inadequately. "But I can't help you today, especially when I don't know what you want."
Her fingers jerked under his and he let them go. "I said--"
"I know what you said. But it's not what you've come for. When you're ready to level with me, come and see me. Otherwise forget about showing up tomorrow."
Theo jogged down the stairs. Not one of his more brilliant ideas, he realized as he stumbled on the bottom step of the parking level landing. He was exhausted. He shouldn't have stopped at the office at all, but he'd wanted to pick up his mail.
His footsteps echoed hollowly among the pillars of the underground garage. A car roared down the ramp from the level above him, its exhaust backfiring. The pistol shot bang reverberated from the concrete walls. Theo closed his eyes for a moment, his head pounding in earnest.
Home, he thought. I have to get home. Beside his car, he fumbled with the keys, missing the lock. They clattered to the floor. He bent and picked them up. The pungency of stale oil swam up his nostrils, swirling nausea in his stomach. He swallowed hard, opened the car door and tossed the briefcase into the back seat.
The Saab started with its usual, reassuring growl. He shifted into reverse, backed out of the slot, and headed for the ramp. The exit signs blurred into a red haze. He rubbed his eyes, wishing he'd stopped to take a painkiller. He rarely had headaches but this was shaping up to be a doozy.
The lowering sun hit his eyes like a laser excising cataracts. He reached for his sunglasses, which had slid into the far corner of the dash, pulling the temple pieces open with his teeth. He put on the glasses, closing his eyes in relief as he paused to let the traffic pour by.
A sharp beep behind the car told him he'd loitered too long. He pulled into the line of traffic. The Ford Bronco squealed its tires as it swerved around him, its driver lifting one hand with upraised middle finger as it went by. Theo had the satisfaction of hearing him screech to a stop as the light turned red.
Pulling in behind the Bronco, Theo tapped his fingers on the steering wheel. Sunlight slanted through the windshield, momentarily blinding him when he made the turn heading for the bridge. The gridlock line of vehicles groaned to a stop again. Blinking away the red and yellow spots dancing before his eyes, Theo adjusted the volume on the radio to hear the traffic report.
"Downtown Vancouver is experiencing delays," the announcer said cheerfully. "An accident in the tunnel is being cleared up. The bridges are all clear. Stay tuned..."
He punched a tape into the machine. Mozart rolled out of the speakers. He glanced around the car. Odd, it looked as if a piece of brown rope lay on the gray carpet. Where had that come from--he'd vacuumed the floor just before his trip.
Near the bottom of the seat he saw a flash of yellow--moving toward him. His hands froze on the steering wheel, gripping it in a stranglehold.
Panic blossomed in his chest, forcing out the air until he couldn't breathe. The long body, as thick as his thumb, undulated sinuously up the low console. A tiny forked tongue tested the air as the blunt head aimed straight for his ankle.
Jenny found herself in the elevator heading for the main floor without quite knowing how she'd gotten inside. Zacharias had left her, saying he would take the stairs, that the exercise would wake him enough to drive home. She reached the lobby, and nodded to the security guard who marked something in a ledger, making a note that she'd left the building, no doubt.
She walked down the street toward the parking lot where she'd left her car. By now Cindi would have locked up the office, and seen that the bikes were secured in the storage area they rented in the basement of the building. There was plenty of paperwork, but Jenny didn't feel like going back to shut herself into the dingy office to nurture the incipient headache nagging her temples.
On the next street, a siren wailed, a high-pitched scream rising and falling in the narrow canyons between high buildings.
She turned the corner, squinting into the westering sun. Near the bridge she saw the red and blue flash of a police cruiser's roof lights. Commuters sat in the motionless traffic, their faces resigned, stoical.
The accident didn't look too bad. One by one the cars inched around the white cruiser, as the policeman directed them. She drew nearer, heels clicking on the concrete sidewalk.
Then she saw him. Theo Zacharias stood beside a dark gray Saab with its fender crushed against a lamp pole. Even from thirty feet away, she could see that his face was drawn and white, except for the trickle of blood from a cut next to his eyebrow.
Fear clenched in her chest and she broke into a run.