I was being followed. At first, I figured my suspicions were just paranoia from hanging out with people like Mark and his brother Steve Huntington. They both did undercover investigations for corporations that wanted to unearth possible criminal dealings, but keep the details quiet.
Sure, I’d worked a few cases for Huntington, but I wasn’t working on any now. Frankly, I liked my skin intact, without bullet holes. I, Sedona O’Hala, had retired from espionage at the early age of twenty-seven. Too bad I couldn’t also quit my day job in the computer industry and retire to a beach somewhere. Given the blue car that lagged its way past my house for the fourth time in as many days, it was apparent I hadn’t quite succeeded in leaving behind the riskier parts of undercover work either.
I’d have assumed the blue car belonged to a new neighbor, but I lived on a cul-de-sac and knew my neighbors. I’d also seen the same car behind me when I pulled into the grocery and once when I dropped off a baby gift at my brother Sean’s house.
Thinking of Sean, I debated calling him for help on the matter. Sean was a lawyer. He knew a couple of policemen. Sadly, their idea of “helping” was usually the same as Sean’s: Nag me, the victim. I tabled the idea before those neurons in my brain could get any better acquainted.
“Huntington.” It came out sounding like a curse. The obvious thing to do was call him. He’d nag too, but he’d also take care of it. He might already know who was following me and why. Not that he’d tell me, but he might know.
I picked up the phone and dialed. “I’m being followed. And I might need some help.” I didn’t waste my dime calling Huntington even if he was the obvious choice. I had other options. Radar was a geek of the highest caliber. He could trace the car for me.
After a lengthy pause, my friend Radar said, “That’s not good.”
I was surprised by the pause. He was usually faster on the uptake. Maybe he had stopped to compute the danger to his own skin. “If I get the license plate number will you trace the car?”
“I take it you haven’t called Huntington either?”
“What do you mean by either?”
“Someone’s been tailing me too. I’m not even working for Huntington right now.”
“Me either! And someone is following you too?” My brain cells fired in several directions at once. “This cannot be good news.”
“I’m thinking not. What’s the license plate number?”
“Don’t know yet. Mostly the car goes past my house, but I’ve seen it a couple of other times. Blue Miata.”
“The one following me is a Ford Mustang, rental. Still tracing who is doing the rental.”
“So if you’re not working for Huntington, and I’m not working for him…is this a criminal from an old case?” I chewed my lip nervously.
“No way to know yet. You planning to ask Huntington about it?”
I didn’t answer for a long moment. Unlike me, Radar enjoyed working for Huntington. He could stay in the background, work his computers and get answers without ever being seen. Huntington usually sent me inside the company to pose as an innocent employee. Which I was—an innocent employee who just happened to take notes on anything unusual. Well, that was the way it was supposed to work, but it was never that simple.
“Why would someone from an old case be following you and me? I never tell anyone I worked for Huntington!”
“Of course,” Radar agreed. “What’s the point in doing something in secret if you tell other people?”
“You know, Huntington may have hired us without telling us,” I mused.
“I don’t follow.”
“It would be just like him to use us for some scheme and not mention we were working for him until he had to.”
“Heh-heh.” Unlike me, Radar apparently thought the idea was clever. “Why not just ask him what is going on?”
“You ask him. I’ll get the license plate number.”
The best way to be followed is to go somewhere, and the flowers I’d picked up for Brenda were not getting any fresher. I was already dressed to run from danger; my trusty tee-shirt and new “shaping” sweatpants were flexible, although neither had ever been tested past a fast walk.
I lingered in the bedroom, sliding glances at the bed. Sean had given me a firearm a while back. It was stored under my bed in case of an emergency. I knew how to use it.
But Mark had told me that a twenty-two wasn’t the best self-protection gun to own even if I was more accurate with it than larger guns.
In the end, I settled for tucking the nunchucks I’d never really learned to use under the front seat of the Mercedes. The SUV had never felt like mine because Huntington had given it to me as a prop when he hired me for the first case. He’d paid for it and the condo where he now lived. Both high-end items were meant to convince criminals I was on the take. It hadn’t worked out quite as planned.
I turned onto Spittle Road and had to slam on the brakes to avoid hitting a small white Ford. The flowers smacked into the bottom of the dash and tipped over.
My heart beat double time. Was this it? Radar had said a Ford was following him! I should have brought the gun. Keeping my eyes on the car in front of me, I reached for the nunchucks. My chin smacked into the steering wheel, and I accidentally bit down hard on my tongue. “Mmowww!”
The doors on the Ford stayed closed. No one came flying out to kill me.
I sat up a little higher. Wait a minute. Radar said it was a Mustang following him. The Ford Focus in front of me was definitely not the type of vehicle anyone would use in a high speed chase. Not that I’d tried that escape yet. “There isn’t even a turn here! What are you doing?” I tapped the horn. The driver, possibly a white-haired lady, flipped me off and picked up speed.
I leaned over and set the flowers upright. The daisy on the end had taken it pretty hard, leaving a smear of petals on the bottom of the glove box. The water from the vase had soaked into the floor mat.
The near accident might have been partially my fault since I had been busy checking my rear-view mirror. “Should have stayed home and waited for the Miata to pass by,” I muttered. The problem was that my sister-in-law, Brenda, was being released from the hospital tomorrow after having given birth to her first baby, my niece. If I didn’t bring her flowers today, I’d never hear the end of it.
Luckily there wasn’t much traffic on Spittle. I checked all mirrors again and headed to Crestwood Hospital.
No one followed me, although I did spot a yellow Mustang. Radar hadn’t told me the color of the Mustang that was following him. The one across from me at the stoplight was driven by a short lady with long curly hair. It was hard to see much more than that because the windows were tinted.
I started repeating the license number. “Four-two-six-butter-chocolate—” I missed the last letter because no food item came to me in time. “Four-two-six ought to be enough for Radar, anyway.”
As soon as I pulled into the hospital parking lot, the flowers dumped over again. I had to put them on the seat and then write down the number of the plate.
The daisy had one petal left. The roses were bent over, but I rearranged it so that the daisy was underneath it. With one petal, there was nothing to see anyway. The flowers looked as though I had sat on them.
Maybe I should buy some at the hospital gift shop. Then again, I’d seen their prices when I worked here. Brenda wasn’t very good with details. Maybe she wouldn’t notice.
Knowing the room number saved me a lot of trouble. I took the stairs. No need to run into old co-workers if I didn’t have to.
Speaking of old co-workers, Huntington leaned against the doorway, watching the hallway.
“What are you doing here?” I hissed.
His baby blues were amused at my annoyance. “Stopped in to wish your sister-in-law well.”
Brenda called out, “Isn’t it great? He’s handling my security while I’m here.”
“Security?” I pushed past Huntington and managed to bump him with the flowers. The best looking rose in the bunch knocked the daisy support out. Luckily there was no water to slosh out. “Watch the flowers,” I said, acting as though he had been the one to just damage them.
He raised dark eyebrows and then frowned. By any measure, Huntington was handsome. Jet black hair was offset by gorgeous eyes that were friendly—when it suited him. Which with me was almost never.
“Those are flowers?” he snorted.
Luckily Brenda wasn’t as particular. “Oh, thank you, Sedona! There’s not a spot to put them though!” She beamed at the packed side table and then waved at the one shelf across from the bed. Both had enough flowers to start a farm.
I busied myself at her bedside, juggling things while she pattered on about her visitors. Pretty soon, my vase was buried in the middle, and I had stolen three flowers from another vase. “There. It fits.”
Brenda might not have noticed what I was doing, but I was sure Huntington had. He didn’t miss a trick. To discourage him from pointing out my subterfuge, I said, “What’s this about security? Has something happened?”
Brenda reduced her happy chirp to a stage whisper. “Well, with all that went on in this place not so long ago, how is a body to feel safe? What if there were some other culprits we didn’t catch? I’m not taking any chances with the baby!”
Even if all the accomplices hadn’t been caught because the perps had been after money, not pregnant women. My brow furrowed with deep thought, but I could think of no possible reason Huntington was needed here. “He charges a lot. He might not be worth it.”
“Oh, he’s doing it for free. Part of his present to us for the baby!”
My attention shifted to Huntington. The man didn’t do anything without a reason.
He smiled innocently. “Did you bring a gift?” he asked. “Besides the flowers, I mean.”
I had already delivered the gift to my brother at his house, but before I could answer, Brenda said, “Huntington told me you were joining a sewing group and would be able to sew me a bumper set to match the baby sheets! I’m so excited because I haven’t gotten anything I like yet. I didn’t even know you could sew!”
“You do know how to sew, right?” Huntington threw in.
“I thought a sewing group would be a huge opportunity for you, and of course a baby set for Brenda would be perfect.”
“You thought what?” My confusion gave way as it was hit with the spark of my igniting temper. Huntington was obviously up to something. “Are you having me followed?” I demanded. “Or have you already told the sewing mafia about me and that is why they are after me?”
Huntington blinked and stepped away from my wrath. “What?”
“I’m serious, Huntington. If you’ve put me on a case without even telling me—”
Mark walked in, effectively shutting me up mid-sentence. Where Huntington was suave businessman sexy, Mark was more athletic. Even though winter wasn’t quite over, he sported a healthy tan to match his coffee-brown eyes. His hair was nearly as dark as his brother’s, but he moved with a smoother grace, almost like a wolf stalking its prey. “Hey, Sedona. Fancy meeting you here.” His smile ignited something other than my temper. It melted a few things too.
He stepped in front of his brother, holding a large wrapped gift. “Did I hear you say Steve isn’t telling you something?”
“She’s crazy,” Huntington muttered. He dodged around the doorway and headed down the hall.
“I thought you were guarding the place?” I yelled after him.
Mark grinned. “She has enough visitors, she’s never alone.” He put the gift down near the bottom of the bed, but Brenda wasn’t one to wait. She leaned over and grabbed it. For someone who had just given birth, she looked wonderful. Her face was radiant and her short brunette hair curled around her chin.
She tore into the package eagerly.
Mark took the opportunity to whisper, “She doesn’t need a guard. We’ve doubled-checked the situation carefully, but we told your brother we’d stop by anyway. Looks like Sean is taking no chances. We ran into his buddies from the precinct downstairs in the flower shop. They’re on their way up too.”
Uh-oh. I did not want to run into Derrick-the-by-the-book-cop or his partner. I started to tell Mark about being followed, but there was no way to do the topic justice before Derrick arrived. And if he overheard even a single snippet, he would tell Sean. Sean would cause a scene, possibly call our parents and accuse me of putting Brenda and the baby in danger.
“I gotta go,” I said.
Mark looked surprised, but just then Brenda clapped her hands and gushed, “Oh Mark, you shouldn’t have!”
I used the distraction to slip out the door. I just made the stairwell as the elevator doors opened to reveal Derrick and his partner Adrian.
I was pretty happy to not have involved anyone else until I was halfway across the parking lot.
A blue Miata cruised through the lot two aisles away, probably hunting for me and my car. I ducked behind a van and peeked out.
“Six-six—” It turned a corner before I could get the rest of it.
I straightened from my hunch and nonchalantly went around the other side of the van. I needed the license number, but I couldn’t risk being seen out in the open. The person driving would probably run me over. That would solve their problem, but not mine. At least if I got hit, I was near the hospital.
I dodged behind another parked car and squinted over the top. If it would just turn this way…it did. But whoever was driving spotted me lurking. My brief glance gave me the impression of a young guy with short hair before he gunned the engine and took off.
“Too late, I got it!” I crowed.
I hurried into the Mercedes and wrote down the number next to the partial of the Mustang tag.
I was happy until it occurred to me that the tail had somehow tied me to the hospital. This situation had to be related to a previous case. I didn’t even work here anymore. Thank God.
My cell rang. It was Radar.
“We’ve got to meet,” I said. “I have the license number. The Miata picked up my trail at the hospital. We have to solve this problem and soon.” I couldn’t take any risks with Brenda or my baby niece. I had to lose the tail. Permanently.
“Okay. You want to give me the numbers now or meet for lunch?”
The obvious place to meet was Happy Family Chinese. He said it before I could. “I’m on my way,” I said before hanging up and hitting the gas pedal.
Even though we weren’t working on a case, unless you counted saving our own hides as a case, Radar still dressed in his version of a super spy. It was ridiculous because Mrs. Chang already knew both of us and since I knew him, I don’t know who he thought he was fooling.
If Mrs. Chang was fazed by his strange behavior she never said anything. Perhaps she silently wondered why Radar was wearing a bucket hat that was too large for his head, walked into the restaurant with extremely bad posture and in general managed to look like a homeless individual hoping for a handout.
I know I was wondering about his ridiculous appearance. “Nice hat. Do you think you can push it up so I can see your eyes?” If he wanted to hide his face maybe he should go with one of those leather aviator helmets and a scarf. I suggested as much.
“Those aren’t in style. Unless we met at an airfield.” His eyes lit up at the suggestion. I had momentarily forgotten that he was an ace helicopter pilot. He probably actually owned one of those Charles Lindberg hats.
“This will do,” I said hastily.
Mrs. Chang brought me a water and took my order. Since I was eating with Radar and he tended to eat my leftovers before I could even request a doggie bag, I went with the large order of fried rice.
“Good, good,” she said agreeably. “Try Peking Duck soon, yes?” she grinned happily as she bounced to the kitchen even though we never ordered Peking Duck.
Before either of us could start a discussion, there was a large bang at the front of the restaurant. I turned in the booth in time to see that a woman about my age had yanked the door to the restaurant open and then stood in the doorway squinting. I missed the look on Radar’s face because I was wondering who she was hunting for with her hands on her hips and her foot tapping angrily.
The food at Happy Family was way too good to produce such an angry customer.
Frizzy red hair floated around her shoulders. Dark brown eyes opened wide as she caught me staring. Before I could register what was happening, she stomped over. Her accusing gaze went from me to Radar before she slapped a hand on the table. “I knew it!” She spit enough venom in the one sentence to make any snake proud. “You despicable fiend! You worm. You…you…” she burst into tears, but didn’t stop stuttering at Radar. “Did you think I wouldn’t recognize you? Did you think you could really sneak around without me noticing?”
“Uh…” If I’d had a single logical thing to say, I’d have said it.
“Don’t tell me you aren’t meeting here in secret!” she yelled at me.
All the blood in Radar’s face receded, but then came back in a rush. The woman continued to gasp out accusations, one of which had to do with me. And Radar. And meeting in secret.
My brow furrowed. “Well, yes we are meeting in secret but…why are you here? And is that a wig?” Her red hair should have been matched by light skin and light eyes, but her tones were distinctly olive. Her narrow eyes were nearly devoid of visible eyelids. If not for the red hair…the woman had to have oriental genes.
She sniffed and glared at me. “You can tell? Damn. But if you didn’t know about me, I have to tell you, he’s cheating on you. He’s been dating me all along!” She stabbed a finger at Radar.
“Dating? Cheating on…wait a minute. Did you follow us here? Have you been following him? And me? I’m not having an affair with Radar.” The thought made me smile. The expression on Radar’s face made the smile bigger. It was a good thing our food hadn’t arrived yet because otherwise he would have been choking. Somewhere between mortified and wishing for death, Radar was no longer breathing.
I reached over and grabbed the woman’s arm. “Listen to me! Radar is my friend and has been for a long time. I met him to get advice…on my job.” I shouldn’t have hesitated during the last part of the sentence because her eyes blinked dangerously. “You might as well join us for lunch,” I said with a sigh. “Since you’re here.”
I scooted over, but she didn’t sit down. “You can’t tell me that he isn’t having an affair! Why else would he sneak out in that stupid disguise?”
She had me there. I couldn’t think of any reason good enough for the disguise, including a clandestine affair. I started laughing. I couldn’t help it. When Mrs. Chang came up behind the redhead with food, she had no choice but to sit down. She plopped next to me, but didn’t stop looking dangerous.
I was still laughing like a lunatic. “Honest,” I gasped out. “I have a boyfriend.”
This got Radar’s attention and his frozen gaze moved to me as he sucked in air. “You do? Which one?”
I stopped laughing. “What do you mean which one?” I snapped.
“Which Huntington,” he clarified.
“Very funny,” I groused. “And it’s none of your business.”
“Mark,” he decided. “You and Huntington would end up killing each other.”
“Why don’t we talk about something else?” There was much more interesting fodder around. I hadn’t even known Radar had a girlfriend.
I turned to the redhead. “I’m Sedona. I work with Radar.” I scratched my forehead. “Sort of.”
“I consult on certain jobs with her and her associates,” Radar said stiffly.
“But…” she started and then stopped.
“But why does he dress like that?” I supplied. “One does wonder, doesn’t one?” I waved at Mrs. Chang and asked her to bring an extra plate. “If you haven’t eaten here, the food is excellent.”
“I have.” She swallowed. “Radar brought me here on a date.” Her voice was small now that her anger was replaced by confusion. I felt bad for her. She didn’t look like the type to indulge in scenes, but if a guy is cheating on you, it brings out the worst.
“Look,” I said. “I work on…” I looked over at Radar. He was no help. He shrugged. I tried again. “I work on investigations.”
“Investigations?” Her eyes widened. “You mean you spy on people to find out if they are having affairs? I could have hired you?”
She was moving way too fast for me and not in the right direction. I snapped my mouth closed and shook my head. “Not so far. I mean, I haven’t ever done that type of investigation before.”
“But you’re a…what are they called? A detective? A private one?”
“No, that would be Mark and Huntington. I think.” Since I didn’t know exactly what the two of them were licensed as, I couldn’t be sure. The catch-all of detective seemed to fit, but Huntington was more like an undercover agent. Instead of working for the government, he hired out to rich corporations that paid him a lot of money to solve suspicious in-house activities. As far as I knew none of his cases involved snapping pictures of people in compromising positions.
“Who is Huntington?” she asked slowly. “The guy you are dating?”
I glared at Radar because he was starting to smile. “No, I am not dating Huntington,” I said.
“Oh. He’s a detective? And you work for him?”
I opened my mouth to tell her that I didn’t anymore, but the explanation didn’t seem worth it at the moment. The important thing was that I wasn’t having an affair with Radar.
Just then, the redhead pulled off her wig and set it on the seat between us. Her short black hair was a cap on her dainty head. It was a lot more attractive than the wig. From a distance, she could easily pass for a young guy driving a Miata. “I take it you had to wear a disguise to follow Radar?”
She nodded. “And my mom has a rental car right now, so I used that because I didn’t want him to recognize my Miata.”
The woman was made for him. Her disguise was easily as bad as Radar’s. She put a small portion of fried rice on her plate, before glancing nervously at Radar. “I’m Carol. I work at Crestwood and met Radar at the hospital.” She looked at Radar and then finally asked, “You don’t just work on the computers there?”
“That’s an understatement in more ways than one,” I said. “He doesn’t work on computers, he extracts impossible information by hacking into any and all databases.” Sometimes I worried about what Radar might decide to do with his talents. Mostly I just tried not to think about it. “Radar helps out with investigations sometimes. That’s why he started working there.” I really shouldn’t drag the last case out in the open, especially if she worked at the hospital.
“You were involved in The Scandal?” she breathed. “With the doctor who went AWOL after he put dead bodies in the morgue room?”
The only dead body that I knew about was mine, and I obviously hadn’t been dead when he decided to take care of that issue. “Along those lines,” I grumbled.
“Oh.” Her eyes widened, especially now that she had time to inspect Radar’s getup more closely. “Do you really have to dress like that?” Her admiration held a note of doubt.
Radar didn’t answer. He hadn’t started eating, which was a worrisome sign with him. He obviously didn’t know how to handle the situation.
It’s one thing to fall in love with a dashing secret-agent hero, it’s quite another to see him in homeless ghetto clothing. I grinned. “No, that’s just a bonus he throws in for free. You don’t see me walking around like that, and I do similar investigative work.”
Radar finally came alive. “That’s because no disguise would work for you. You’re always barging around being obvious anyway so a disguise wouldn’t do you any good. You might do better if you learned to blend a bit.”
That hurt. My ability to blend was a sore point between Huntington and me, because he hired me to do just that. Just because Radar spotted me as suspicious the first time he met me proved nothing. There were mitigating circumstances. I sniffed with disdain. “We got the guy.” I pointed my chopsticks at him. “So there.”
“Are you still working on a case at the hospital?” Carol asked.
Radar shook his head. “No.”
“No,” I echoed. “He came in disguise hoping to lose the tail following him. I came to see if we could figure out why I was also being followed.”
Radar finally grabbed the serving spoon and began piling food on his plate.
Carol now sat frozen with embarrassment, guilty as charged.
Finally Radar said, “I think we’ve solved the mystery.”
I raised my hand in a high five. He slapped it from across the table. “Another one put to rest.” I smiled at Carol. “Welcome to chaos. Let’s eat.”
It took her a second, but she smiled. We dug in.
Visit Maria at her website: www.BearMountainBooks.com.
All Rights Reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without prior written permission from the author. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to any person, living or dead is entirely coincidental.
Cover Art: Various photos are copyright of artists via depositphotos.