By Jan Christensen
Stan Cooper with his bodyguard, Jack, right behind him, pushed through the glass door at their usual supersonic speed. Cooper crashed into a woman, knocking her on her ass and making her purse fly open. The contents spilled onto the busy New York City sidewalk.
Cooper and the woman both said, "Shit," at the same time, and glared at each other. Jack rocked back on his feet, then began to pick up the items that had fallen out of her purse.
Cooper helped her up and saw that she was of about medium height and slender. Dark brunette hair cascaded down her back almost to her waist, and she wore a short black leather skirt and red silk blouse, open just enough to show a hint of breast.
"Are you all right?" Cooper asked.
"I think so," she answered. "You need to watch where you're going." Her voice was low and tart. She started to brush her hands on her skirt, then looked at the palms, which were badly scraped. Cooper handed her his handkerchief so she could wipe off the grime. At least they weren't bleeding.
"Yes, you're right, I need to watch where I'm going. I apologize. May I buy you a drink while we make sure there's no permanent damage?"
She hesitated while watching Jack scamper around, picking up the purse's contents.
"Do you know him?" she asked. "I mean, he's not going to run off with my stuff, is he?'
"Seems like I was the one who needed a bodyguard." Again the tartness. "Why would you need one? You in the mob? A movie star?"
Cooper laughed, hoping it sounded rueful. "No, I'm a comedian. I do political satire, though, and sometimes the crowd isn't very happy with my remarks."
"Stan Cooper," Cooper said.
"Um, no, I guess not. Hope he's not tapping my phones."
She stared at him with dark green eyes, not laughing. He'd never seen such a color before. Contacts? He didn't think so.
"There's a respectable bar around the corner," he said. "Shall we?"
She looked at him a long moment, then took his arm. "Why not? Good thing I wasn't wearing stockings — you'd owe me a pair."
And a good thing she was wearing leather on that very nice ass, or she'd have road burn, he thought, but he said nothing. Cooper was never speechless, but he found this woman coming close to making him so. Jack grinned, sensing his unease. Jack was drop-dead handsome, and most of the women looked at him before paying any attention to Cooper. But this one's focus seemed entirely on him, and he found it both pleasing and unnerving.
The bar was crowded with the after-work bunch. No one paid any attention to Cooper — they were used to his dropping in, but Lois got a lot of stares. They grabbed a table in a far corner and squeezed into the booth.
"What'll you have?" Cooper asked.
When the waitress came over, Cooper ordered for all of them, then leaned back against the booth and looked into those amazing eyes.
"So, you know what I do for a living. How about you?"
"I'm an undercover agent for the CIA, and your jokes about the President are not appreciated in either the Oval Office or CIA headquarters." She said it with a straight face, so it took a moment for both Jack and Cooper to laugh, Jack first.
"I think you just broke your cover," Jack said.
"Oops." Lois gave him a lazy smile. "I'm really a boring administrative assistant for a boring engineering firm. This is the most excitement I've had since, oh, Columbus Day."
Jack grinned. "Cooper's a pretty exciting guy."
The waitress brought their drinks; they all took a sip, then looked at each other.
Cooper shifted around on the seat a bit, trying to relax. He decided this was not a relaxing woman. "I do political humor. Satire. Get to work around nine, talk to my writers, decide what to use, refine it. It can get pretty intense."
"Doesn't sound very humorous." Lois said.
"No. It's a lot of work," Cooper said seriously.
Jack laughed, and Lois looked at him quizzically. "It's not?"
"Well, he has two writers and lots of other help."
Cooper hoped he wasn't glaring, but thought he might be. He tried to smooth out his face and smile.
"I'm still working about ten hours a day, Jack, as you well know," he said, going for mildness, and almost making it.
"Just kidding." Jack sobered quickly.
"Don't kid the kidder, Jack."
Cooper was aware that Lois watched them with interest. He took a large swallow of his drink and forced himself to relax. "I hope you'll watch the show sometime."
Before Lois could answer, a bear of a guy approached their table. Cooper felt Jack stiffen beside him.
"You Stan Cooper?" the man asked, scowling.
"Maybe. Why do you ask?"
"Just want to shake your hand, Mr. Cooper." Bear held out his paw, and reflexively, Cooper started to shake it.
Jack knocked his hand aside, none too gently. "We're just trying to have a quiet drink here, sir, if you don't mind."
"Yeah I mind. Cooper's a public figure. If he wants quiet, he should go home, not to a bar."
Jack was on his feet before anyone could blink. Cooper heard Lois gasp, but he didn't take his eyes away from Jack and the bear. The other man didn't back down, just stood there like a, well, like a bear.
"What do you want?" Cooper asked, putting his hand on Jack's arm.
"Just wanted to shake your hand." He glared at Jack. "I admire your show."
"How come I don't believe you?" Jack demanded.
"Because you're an asshole?"
Jack shoved the other man hard enough to make him take a step backward. Then the man took another step back and drew a gun. Cooper recognized the silencer just as a strange muffled sound came from the muzzle, and Jack crumpled to the floor. Bear took off, oddly fast for such a big man. Cooper sat for a moment in shock until someone screaming made him scoot out of the booth to check on Jack. Glassy eyes stared back at him, and a look of surprise on Jack's face made Cooper want to cry. "Jack," he muttered. "Jack."
Lois was beside him, her hand at Jack's neck. "He's gone," she said softly, and Cooper realized that she hadn't been the one screaming. She was too cool.
They dashed out of the bar before anyone could stop them. Cooper looked right, then left, and saw the huge man running toward a black SUV, engine running, and someone in the driver's seat. Bear wrenched open the passenger door and jumped inside. The SUV came barreling toward them, and for a moment, Cooper worried it might jump the curb and run them over. Instead, Bear opened the window and began shooting. They both ducked. Bear missed, and the SUV continued its wild ride down the street and around the first corner.
Cooper and Lois stood a few moments, catching their breath. "Did you get the license number by any chance?" he asked.
Lois fumbled in her purse and pulled out a notebook with a pen stuck in the spiral binding. "Yes." She wrote it down.
"Good girl! We'll never catch them, but we need to get away from here. The cops will keep us tied up for hours. I want to catch that sonofabitch myself."
His hands were shaking, so he shoved them in his pockets. He began walking quickly toward his apartment, then realized it would be the first place the cops would look for him. His office was also out. But they needed to go somewhere with a computer.
Lois matched him step for step, even in those ridiculous high heels. He was surprised that she didn't argue with him about the police. He was even more surprised when she said, "Let's go to my place. They won't look for you there, and we can decide what to do with no distractions."
Taking his hand out of his pocket, he grabbed hers. "Thanks. You have a computer?"
"Great. Where do you live?"
"Just around the corner." She led him to an older apartment building, stone-fronted, decently kept. They took the elevator to the fifth floor, and she let them into a spacious living room. Cooper didn't think much of the décor. It seemed almost staged, he realized, with few personal touches.
"I only moved in a couple of months ago," Lois said. "Haven't had much time to decorate." She put her purse on the coffee table. "The computer's in here." She took him to a room in the back — view of the brick building next door, almost close enough to touch. The room was strictly utilitarian office with a cheap wooden desk, metal file cabinet, a desktop computer which looked brand new, and a slightly beaten-up laptop on another, smaller desk in a corner.
Lois booted up the desktop machine. "Why don't you get a chair from the dining room? I never thought to have another chair in here."
Cooper went to the small dining room and grabbed an armless chair. He was a bit surprised at how big the apartment was for a gal who worked as an office assistant. Maybe she had a trust fund. The furniture was rather cheap, though, he noticed when he hefted the chair.
Why was he noticing Lois's apartment and décor when his best friend lay dead in the neighborhood bar? Because he couldn't think about Jack right now. He had to concentrate on finding the man who'd killed him.
His shoulders sagged as he understood how right Jack's instincts had been, had always been. If only he'd paid attention. The shock was wearing off, and he began to think more clearly. That man might have been gunning for me. A chill crept down Cooper's spine.
Better to think of it as random, almost as an accident. They'd probably find out the guy was one of those impulsive people given to hair-trigger anger. When Jack had gotten in his way, he'd killed him.
Cooper stood there, holding the chair, thinking. He didn't really believe it was random. The SUV waiting was a huge indication that the whole thing had been planned. But who had been the target?
If I'd been the target, Cooper thought, all the guy had to do after shooting Jack was turn the gun on me. He didn't do that. But why would anyone want Jack dead?
Lugging the chair into Lois's office, he couldn't think of an answer. Lois was staring at the screen. Cooper saw that she'd Googled Jack's name, and there were over a thousand hits.
"Why would his name get so many hits?" he asked.
"Some have to do with interviews you gave where his name is mentioned, or bios of you. Someone else apparently has the same name, if Jack wasn't also in business as a personal trainer."
"Then there's a few articles about a Jack Ernst being arrested two weeks ago. Wonder if that's your Jack or the personal trainer."
"Arrested for what?"
Lois clicked on the link, and the article came up with a mug shot of his Jack. Cooper gave a start of surprise, and Lois looked at him. "You okay? Jack never been arrested before?"
"Not that I know of."
They read the article, then stared at each other. "Beating his girlfriend?" Cooper said. "He didn't have a girlfriend. He'd just broken up with Dinah, and swore off women, like he always did. That usually lasted about six months. And he never told me he was arrested."
Lois shrugged. "Probably not something he wanted you to know." She hit the back arrow key and looked at the list on Google again. "This appears to be a follow-up article," she said and clicked it on.
"Oops, they arrested the wrong Jack. Look at this!" Lois said.
"No wonder he never told me. Later, it would have turned into a joke." Cooper stood up and began to pace. "Could this have had anything to do with his being shot tonight? Some relative of the woman, bent on revenge? The first article says he worked for me. Easy to find me, where I work, what my habits are." He paced faster.
Lois watched him for a moment, then said, "You need to sit down, calm down, and let's see if we can find out more about the woman and her family."
Cooper sank into his chair and put his head in his hands. "How can we do that?"
"Google her?" Lois said, her voice tart again.
Cooper took his hands away from his face and stared at Lois. "You seem to know a lot about investigation."
Lois shrugged, looked at the screen and typed in the woman's name. "I like surfing the net," she said.
Cooper made himself start remembering the events since he'd met Lois. He'd barreled into her. Her stuff flew all over the place, and Jack picked it all up. He'd introduced her to Jack and himself. Had he told her Jack's last name? He didn't think so. How did she know it to Google it, then?
He stood up again so fast the chair almost toppled over. Grabbing it, he stared at Lois.
"Who are you, really? Did we just bump into each other, or was that planned? What are you up to?"
"I don't know what you're talking about. I told you who I am."
"Yeah? How'd you know Jack's last name?"
Her hands stilled over the keyboard for a moment, then quickly clicked on another link. If he hadn't been watching them, he wouldn't have noticed her hesitation.
"You told me when you introduced us. I have a good memory for names."
Cooper began to pace again. He didn't know what to believe. The room became too small, so he walked to the living room, paced around, then noticed Lois's purse on the coffee table. Glancing over his shoulder, he picked it up.
It was huge, so he felt around inside instead of looking into the dark depths. His hand found the notebook, and he took it out. Several receipts were paper clipped to the cover, and he saw one for a furniture rental place, dated two days ago. That's why the furniture looked odd in this apartment. But she'd said she'd been here a couple of months.
He looked inside the notebook but couldn't figure much out from it because it was all written in some kind of shorthand. He did see his name, and Jack's, on a few pages.
He sat down on the couch hard. She's bumped into him deliberately. What was her game?
The notebook was no help, so he fished around in the purse some more. In a zippered compartment he found a press badge with her real name on it. Or at least the name she went by when she wrote for the tabloids. Tiffany Breeze.
Then there was the gun. A small little thing. He didn't know anything about guns, but this one looked more like a toy than the real deal. He guessed it wouldn't go off accidentally since it hadn't when she'd dropped the purse on the street. Maybe that was what had lulled Jack away from his usual caution. He thought he'd seen everything in Lois's — Tiffany's — purse.
Smart little Tiffany. He held the badge and the gun in his hand and walked back to the other room.
"You're a clever girl, but not clever enough.”
She swung her head around to look at him and saw what he was holding. "You've been snooping."
"Kettle calling the pot black."
"That I.D. is fake. I had it made up as a joke."
"And I suppose the gun's a cigarette lighter."
"No, of course not. You don't have to be a reporter to carry a gun."
"You're lying. I know you're not Lois. I saw Jack's and my names in your notebook."
"You have been busy. Well, so have I." More tartness. She was something, he thought. Way too cool. "I've found out that the woman the other Jack beat has a brother. He gave some interviews to the press. One was even taped and put on the station's website. Shall I play it for you?"
"Sure. As soon as you explain what you're up to."
"Oh for heaven's sake, you know. I wanted to get some dirt on you. The paper wants an article. But the story about Jack is bigger than that, bigger than both of us."
"So now you're going to climb all over Jack's murder to make your sleazy tabloid happy? How low can you go?"
"It's my job. What's so different about us? You make fun of other people for a living. You tear them up. You get people to laugh at them."
"No, I get people to think. I have a purpose in what I do."
"Oh, give me a break. You have a higher calling, huh? You like the limelight — admit it." She hit an arrow key on the screen, and a video began to play.
And there was Bear, talking into a microphone, telling the world that Jack had beaten his sister. Apparently Bear didn't keep up with the news though, since he didn't know that the police had arrested the wrong man.
The doorbell chimed, and they stared at each other. "You expecting anyone?" Cooper asked.
"No." She stood up and walked to the door, looked through the peephole. "It's him." Her voice wasn't tart now; she sounded small and scared.
A strange noise made both of them back up, and Cooper realized Bear had shot the lock with the silenced gun, just missing hitting either one of them. The door banged open, and there he stood, gun pointed right at Cooper.
This time Lois screamed. Bear's arm swung around toward her, and the muffled sound of a shot seemed to fill the room. Lois crumpled to the floor.
Cooper dropped the gun, sank to his knees and crawled over to Lois. Her eyes fluttered open.
"No." She sat up and reached for him.
He grasped her upper arms and looked her over. No sign of blood. He checked behind where she’d been standing and saw a bullet in the wall. "He missed you." Cooper pulled her toward him, and they hung onto each other.
Finally, she pulled away, and glanced at Bear, then quickly away. "He's dead?"
Cooper looked at Bear. He struggled to live, swearing, glaring at Cooper.
"How'd you find us?" Cooper asked.
"Doubled back and followed you, asshole. Took awhile to get the super to tell me which apartment." More swearing, and then he gurgled once, and was gone.
Cooper turned to Lois. What she did for a living disturbed him, but something about her made him want to know her better. Might have been the near-death experience. Might be the way she looked. Maybe her wry tartness. She stared at him, lips slightly parted.
He stood up, then pulled her into his arms again. Decided whatever it was, he wanted to know her better.
Jan Christensen has had over sixty short stories published, but during the last couple of years had been concentrating on writing novels. Now she has decided to get back to writing stories because she loves writing them. Ms. Christensen is a member of MMA, SinC, and the president of the SMFS.
Copyright © 2015 Jan Christensen. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!
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