Part #7 of The Mediator series by Meg Cabot
I shot him the kind of annoyed glance a rich wife would give her hapless husband.
“Yes, dear. Remember? We talked about this.”
“We did?” Paul was much slower than Jesse to pick up on my cues. He stood looking around the gallery, which, like the wall outside, was painted black. This made the photographs on the wall stand out more starkly. Even the floors and ceiling were black.
How daring, I’m sure a young Jimmy Delgado had thought when he’d come up with the concept.
I gave him an apologetic smile. “Sorry, Mr. Delgado. My husband, Victor, was in meetings all day. I didn’t really get a chance to discuss this with him.”
“I understand.” Delgado gave Paul a sympathetic smile. “Such a shame you’re only here for the weekend, Mr. Maitland. And for a conference, too! Carmel is simply beautiful this time of year. But don’t worry, I’ve assured your wife I can squeeze in your girls. I happen to have had a cancellation tomorrow—the birthday girl has the flu—so it’s fine if you want to drop your adorable daughters off for some headshots. You and your wife don’t even need to stay if you want some private time. My assistant and I are used to wrangling rambunctious multiples.”
After that speech, I had to dive into my bag for the antacids, so I didn’t get to see Paul’s expression as he echoed, “Multiples?”
“That’s right, darling.” I dug my phone from my purse, too, as well as the antacid tablets, then scrolled to the photo the triplets had taken of themselves and set as my screensaver the day before. “I’ve set up an appointment for Mr. Delgado to do some headshots of your daughters.”
Paul only looked more confused than ever.
“I e-mailed Mr. Delgado some photos of them earlier,” I went on, “and he wrote back right away. He thinks they’ve got real modeling potential. I think so, too. Don’t you?”
I showed Paul the photo of Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-tail. He took my phone and stared at the photo without a single flicker of recognition.
“Uh, sure, honey,” he said. “Whatever you say.”
It was obvious from his expression that he’d not only never seen a photo of the triplets before in his life, but that he was hurt—hurt that the only reason we were in the studio was to con Delgado, not for me to take off my clothes and give Paul a professional eight-by-ten glossy print of myself in my naked glory, perhaps posing with a tastefully positioned feathered fan.
If Paul was reading CeeCee’s newsletter, he was skipping any entries about Debbie, because they always included a photo of the triplets.
But seeing their likeness so close to him, I was more convinced than ever that they were related. They could have been clones, except for the fact that the girls all had braids and freckles.
Passing my phone back to me, Paul whispered, “Is this about some goddamned ghost?”
“You’re just figuring that out now?” I whispered back.
“I swear to God, Simon, if this makes us late to dinner—”
“No one said anything about being late to dinner.”
His jaw hardened. The blue-eyed gaze narrowed at me. “The deal was that we were going to—”
“—have dinner at eight o’clock. With dessert afterward. Don’t worry, we won’t be late.” I pressed a button on my phone and said in a much louder voice, “Victor says tomorrow will work fine, Mr. Delgado.”
“Wonderful, wonderful!” Delgado was clapping his hands, circling back toward his desk. “I hope you won’t find this presumptuous, but if you wouldn’t mind, I printed out a brief contract, and it would be lovely if you could sign it so we can get everything squared away for tomorrow, and be ready to go when you drop off the girls. It’s really nothing too complicated, I think you’ll agree, just a cancellation agreement, instructions about reproduction rights, that sort of thing. Boilerplate, really.”
“Oh, Victor will be happy to sign,” I said, patting Paul on the shoulder. “Won’t you, Victor?”
I couldn’t believe there were parents in the world who’d be stupid enough to fall for this guy’s spiel. Would anyone actually leave their kids, unaccompanied, with this creep?
“Sure,” Paul said with a sigh, moving toward the desk. “I’ll sign it.”
Well, that answered my question.
While Delgado went over the “brief contract” with Paul, I walked around the studio, pretending to admire his hideous photos. Some of them weren’t portraits of kids, but landscapes or extreme close-ups of the weathered faces of homeless people that Delgado had blown up to five times life-size. I suppose he thought this made him extremely sensitive and artistic.
A lot of the criminals I’d mediated had thought of themselves this way: outsiders who no one in this world could understand. Society simply wasn’t sensitive enough to comprehend their suffering. This is why—in their opinions—they hadn’t really been breaking the law: the law did not apply to them, because they were so special.
I kid you not. I’d heard it a thousand times.
There was another room off the main gallery. This appeared to be Delgado’s office. In keeping with the black-and-white theme, everything in it was white. It contained another desk, this one with a laptop computer on it. No one was sitting at the desk. There was another door from this office. When I tried it, I found that it led to a very spare, very tidy windowless bathroom, also in white.
There were no other doors.
“So your assistant isn’t here right now, Mr. Delgado?” I asked as I came back into the main gallery.
“No,” he said with a rueful smile. “I let him go home early today. It’s Friday, and with the beautiful weather we’ve been having lately, he wanted to go to the beach. How could I say no?”
“How could you?” I looked out the display window, past the gigantic portraits hanging there, at the few people walking by. It was dinnertime, and getting cold. Everyone sane had headed indoors. “We were your last appointment?”
“Yes, but well worth the wait. I’m glad I met with Mr. Maitland’s approval.” He beamed at Paul. “It’s not every day I get to photograph triplets.”
I reached out and grabbed the cord to the blinds in the display window. I snapped it so that the metal blinds closed with a loud crash.
“Oops,” I said. “How clumsy of me.”
“Oh.” Delgado was seated at his desk. His smile disappeared, but he didn’t look alarmed. “That’s all right, Mrs. Maitland. That happens, er, all the time.”
“Does it?” I asked. “How about this?” I stepped to the front door and locked it.
Now he began to look alarmed. He glanced at Paul, as if for reassurance. Paul’s expression seemed to make him feel better, since Paul was staring at me. Paul didn’t look alarmed, however. He looked exasperated.
“Suze,” he said. “Come on. I thought we were here for—”
“For what, Paul?” I reached down and unzipped the sports bag. “To get kinky? Oh, don’t worry. We are. Just not in the way you thought.”
“I thought your name was Victor.” Delgado glanced at Paul in confusion.
“Did you?” Paul glared at him. “Victor Maitland? The villain from the old eighties movie Beverly Hills Cop? Then you’re an even bigger chump than I am, because you could have looked up the name when she first called to make the appointment, you idiot, but you didn’t. I got it right away, but I still didn’t walk out the door, like I should have. Now she’s got both of us.” Paul turned to face me, then sighed when he saw what I’d retrieved from the sports bag. “Oh, great. There’s no bunny outfit in there, is there?”
“Sadly for you, no.” I leveled the .22 Hornet at them. “Jimmy, get your hands away from that phone, or I’ll put a bullet in your chest.”
“You do and they’ll hear the shot next door and call the cops.”
Delgado didn’t sound like a fawning photographer anymore. He sounded more like a man who might once have killed a terrified little girl. Because she didn’t understand his own suffering, of course. I was sure now that must be how he r
“I don’t care,” I said, taking careful aim. He had a black T-shirt on—to go with the theme of the place—with a yellow smiley face in the middle. It was easy to center the target. “It will be worth going to jail to kill you.”
“Suze,” Paul said. He, like Delgado, had his hands in the air. “Think about this. They have the death penalty here in California. Do you really want to go to the chair for murdering a guy whose only crime is taking really bad pictures?”
“Hey,” Delgado said, sounding offended. “I’ve won a lot of awards.”
“Seriously, dude?” Paul looked disgusted. “From who, your mom?”
“Paul.” I kicked the bag. “Stop it. There are some cuffs in here. Get them out and put them on him.”
Paul lowered his hands, looking relieved. “Oh, shit. I thought you were mad at me, too.”
“Oh, I’m mad at you, Paul,” I said, keeping the rifle level at them both. “But I need your help right now. So get out those handcuffs.”
“Fine.” Paul bent to dig through the sports bag with ill grace. “But if you think this is how it’s going to be when we’re married, Suze, with me helping you out with your crazy ghost do-gooding missions, you’re high.”
I rolled my eyes.
“Paul,” I said. “I still might shoot you, considering the mood I’m in, and I can’t promise it will be only to maim. So try to stay on my good side, okay?”
He dug more energetically through the sports bag. “I get it. You’re mad about the thing with Jesse. Maybe I went too far. I can call off the demo. It’ll cost me, but I can do it. But guns, Suze? And”—he pulled a taser from the sports bag and blanched—“these things? Really?”
Delgado, meanwhile, had his own worries.
“Who sent you?” he barked at me gruffly. “If it’s about the money, you can tell Ricky I got it.”
“It wasn’t Ricky. I don’t know any Ricky. It was Lucia Martinez.” I kept the rifle trained at the center of his smiley face T-shirt. “Remember her, Jimmy? She went to Sacred Trinity.”
Delgado actually looked a little relieved. Whoever Ricky was, he was more scared of him than he was of the memory of what he’d done to Lucia. He lowered his hands slightly.
“But that was an accident. Everyone knows that was only an accident.”
I gritted my teeth. “If I hear the word accident one more time . . . there’s a witness that says otherwise.”
Delgado looked confused. “Witness? What witness?”
“A witness who told me exactly how you killed her. How you purposefully spooked Lucia’s horse, then chased after her through the Del Monte Forest and how, when you caught up with her, you pulled her down from her horse and tossed her headfirst into a creek.”
“No.” Delgado’s color had risen in the bright studio lights. His face was now the color of his work-reddened knuckles. “None of that is true.”
“It’s all true,” I said. “I told you, there’s a witness.”
“There isn’t!” he roared, leaping from his chair just as Paul was coming toward him with the handcuffs. “There wasn’t any witness! No one else was there!”
I grinned at him smugly. “Except you, right? That’s how you’re so sure.”
Delgado, realizing he’d just confessed to murder, launched himself from behind the desk. I’d known he was going to make a move—trapped rats always do, eventually. Even tame ones, like Romeo, will attack if they feel threatened enough.
But Delgado’s mistake was that he went for Paul, not for me. Leaping out from behind the desk, he threw a brawny arm around the younger man’s throat and cried, “Stay back! Stay back, or I swear to God I’ll snap his neck.”
Paul was pretty unhappy about this turn of events. “Um, Suze?” he croaked. “I think he means it.”
“Hold still, Paul.” I strode calmly toward them, the rifle raised.
“Wh-what are you doing?” Delgado cried. “I said stay back!”
“Yeah,” Paul said. “He said stay back, Suze.”
“Duck, Paul,” I said, and when I’d closed the distance between us to about a yard, I swung the gun around like a baseball bat, hitting Delgado in the side of the head. He staggered, then slowly went down, though it took a couple more blows to convince him to stay there.
“Goddammit, Suze,” Paul cried as Delgado slumped on top of him, eventually pinning him to the floor beneath his greater weight. “Get him off me. Get him off!”
“I’m trying. Stop being such a baby.” The larger man weighed a ton. Fortunately, he wasn’t dead. I hadn’t wanted to kill him, of course. That’s why I’d tried to avoid striking him in the temple. Jesse had explained to me once that he’d seen more severe brain injuries caused by punches in bar fights than he had by gunshots in the St. Francis ER. A well-placed punch could kill just as surely as a bullet.
“Thank God,” Paul said, scrambling to his feet and adjusting his suit when I’d finally succeeded in rolling Delgado off him. “And who are you calling a baby? I think I’ve got a right to complain. What I am is accessory to kidnapping and attempted murder. Did this guy really kill a girl?”
I nodded. “She was in the first grade at the time.”
“Ew.” He made a face. “And I thought it was only his hideous art that was a crime. Oh, no.” He noticed a stain on his sleeve. “Suze, this is a six-thousand-dollar suit. Who’s going to pay for this?”
“You’re the multimillionaire. Deal with it. Come on, let’s cuff him before he wakes up. I want to look at his computer and see if there’s anything on there I can use to connect him to the murder or any other criminal activities. Do you still carry a gag?”
“Oh, Suze.” He waved his pocket square. “Always.”
“Make use of it. I do not want Mr. Delgado’s screams disturbing the good citizens strolling the downtown Carmel shopping district.”
Paul did as he was told, while I went to work erasing all the footage on the gallery’s security system (which consisted of a set of video cameras—Delgado was obviously a fan of the At Home with Andy show, and his do-it-yourself methods—in two corners of the studio), then searching his computer for incriminating evidence. The desktop wasn’t password protected, leading me to believe there’d be nothing interesting on it.
But after opening a locked drawer at the bottom of the black lacquer desk—easily done with one of the keys I found on a chain inside Delgado’s pocket—I discovered the real computer—a laptop that was not only password protected, but sitting beneath a .44 Magnum handgun. Loaded.
Wow. Lucky for me the drawer had been locked. Not so lucky for Jimmy.
Resting beneath the laptop was a locked cashbox. None of the keys from Delgado’s keychain fit the lock, so Paul and I took turns smashing the cashbox against the cement floor until the thin metal lid finally broke open.
Cashboxes, I’ve found, generally aren’t that well made. Or it could be that the people who construct them never anticipated someone throwing them against a cement floor a bunch of times. Amateurs.
Inside was a surprisingly large amount of money—$50,000 in cash, banded, mostly hundreds and twenties—along with Delgado’s passport, the passport of a man I assumed was his assistant, and a dozen thumb drives. I made the mistake of plugging the thumb drives into the desktop to see what was on them.
I instantly wished I hadn’t.
“Well?” Paul asked. He’d found some bottled beer in a small minifridge in the back office—after first mentioning that it was no wonder Delgado was so overweight: he kept a “buttload” of candy in the cupboards—and was walking around, drinking it, restless as Romeo on his wheel after too many grapes. “What’s old Jimmy been up to in his spare time?”
“Pretty much what I expected.” I switched off the screen, but unfortunately not before Paul happened to stroll behind me and get a good look.
Paul dropped the bottle. It broke, smashing into a hundred pieces. The glass looked like amber, floatin
Paul didn’t have much to say on the ride back to the hotel. I was driving. I didn’t trust him to do so, not only because of how completely freaked out he was by what had just happened, but because he’d also finished off all the beers in the minifridge and was currently working on a fifth of whiskey he’d found hidden in a back drawer of Delgado’s desk.
The last thing we needed now was to get pulled over by the Carmel PD. If the officer asked where we’d been, Paul was likely to blurt the truth. Then it would be straight to jail for both of us.
“Cheer up,” I finally said to him, because he looked so miserable, slumped in the passenger seat, staring unseeingly through the windshield. “You actually did something good tonight, for once in your life. There’s one less child killer on the streets.”
Paul only grunted and continued to stare out the window.
“It’s what you’re supposed to be doing with your God-given talents.” Oh, the irony! If only Father Dom could hear me now. “And it’s not like we didn’t give him a choice.”
Paul snorted. “Some choice.”
“Hey. It’s more than he gave Lucia.”
Paul grunted in disgust.
I shook my head. It had been a mistake to leave Paul in charge of the handcuffs. While I’d been sifting through the data on the thumb drives, Delgado had regained consciousness, wriggled free, then gone for his gun that one of us (Paul) had foolishly left on the black lacquer desk.
Fortunately I’d had the rifle close by.
“Bad idea, Jimmy,” I’d said, aiming the mouth of the Hornet at the center of the smiley face on his chest.
That smiley face. I’d never be able to look at one again without thinking of . . . well, very unpleasant things.
You’d have thought the blows I’d given him would have convinced him otherwise, but Jimmy still woke up with escape on his mind. I saw his gaze go from me to the cashbox—smashed open on his black concrete floor—to the thumb drives scattered across the desk in front of me.
Remembrance by Meg Cabot / Romance & Love / Fantasy / Young Adult have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes