by Nora Roberts
Her mouth fell open before she deliberately snapped it shut. “Well, welcome to the neighborhood,” she muttered as she turned away to her own door. After an initial fumble for her keys, she unlocked her door and slammed it behind her. “Thanks a lot, Dad,” she said to the empty room. “Looks like you found me a real prize.”
Dora dumped her things on a settee blooming with cabbage roses, brushed her hair back with impatient fingers. The guy might have been a pleasure to look at, she mused, but she preferred a neighbor with a modicum of personality. Marching to her candlestick phone, she decided to call her father and give him an earful.
Before she’d dialed the second number, she spotted the sheet of paper with its big heart-shaped happy face drawn at the bottom. Quentin Conroy always added some little drawing—a barometer of his mood—on his notes and letters. Dora hung up the phone and began to read.
Izzy, my darling daughter.
Dora winced. Her father was the only living soul who called her by that derivative of her name.
The deed is done. Well done, if I say so myself. Your new tenant is a strapping young man who should be able to help you with any menial work. His name, as you see on the copies of the lease awaiting your signature, is Jed Skimmerhorn. A full-bodied name that brings lusty sea captains or hearty pioneers to my mind. I found him fascinatingly taciturn, and sensed a whirlpool bubbling under those still waters. I couldn’t think of anything nicer to give my adored daughter than an intriguing neighbor.
Welcome home, my firstborn babe.
Your devoted father.
Dora didn’t want to be amused, but she couldn’t help smiling. The move was so obvious. Put her within elbow-rubbing space of an attractive man, and maybe, just maybe, she would fall in love, get married and give her greedy father more grandchildren to spoil.
“Sorry, Dad,” she murmured. “You’re in for another disappointment.”
Setting the note aside, she skimmed a finger down the lease until she came to Jed’s signature. It was a bold scrawl, and she dashed her own name on the line next to it on both copies. Lifting one, she strode to her door and across the hall and knocked.
When the door opened, Dora thrust the lease out, crushing the corner against Jed’s chest. “You’ll need this for your records.”
He took it. His gaze lowered, scanned, then lifted again. Her eyes weren’t friendly now, but cool. Which suited him. “Why’d the old man leave this with you?”
Her chin tilted up. “The old man,” she said in mild tones, “is my father. I own the building, which makes me, Mr. Skimmerhorn, your landlord.” She turned on her heel and was across the hall in two strides. With her hand on the knob, she paused, turned. Her hair swung out, curved, settled. “The rent’s due on the twenty-first of each month. You can slip the check under my door and save yourself a stamp, as well as any contact with other humans.”
She slipped inside and closed the door with a satisfied snick of the lock.
When Jed jogged to the base of the steps leading up to his apartment, he’d sweated out most of the physical consequences of a half bottle of whiskey. One of the reasons he’d chosen this location was the gym around the corner. He’d spent a very satisfying ninety minutes that morning lifting weights, punching the hell out of the heavy bag and burning away most of his morning-after headache in the steam room.
Now, feeling almost human, he craved a pot of black coffee and one of the microwave breakfasts he’d loaded into his freezer. He pulled his key out of the pocket of his sweats and let himself into the hallway. He heard the music immediately. Not Christmas carols, thankfully, but the rich-throated wail of gospel according to Aretha Franklin.
At least his landlord’s taste in music wouldn’t irritate him, he mused, and would have turned directly into his own rooms except he’d noted her open door.
An even trade, Jed figured, and, dipping his hands into his pockets, wandered over. He knew he’d been deliberately rude the night before. And because it had been deliberate, he saw no reason to apologize. Still, he thought it wise to make some sort of cautious peace with the woman who owned his building.
He nudged the door open a bit wider, and stared.
Like his, her apartment was spacious, high ceilinged and full of light from a trio of front windows. That was where the similarity ended.
Even after growing up in a house adorned with possessions, he was amazed. He’d never seen so much stuff crammed into one single space before. Glass shelves covered one wall and were loaded with old bottles, tins, figurines, painted boxes and various knickknacks that were beyond his power to recognize. There were a number of tables, and each of them was topped by more glassware and china. A brightly floral couch was loaded with colored pillows that picked up the faded tones of a large area rug. A Multan, he recognized. There’d been a similar rug in his family’s front parlor for as long as he could remember.
To complement the season, there was a tree by the window, every branch laden with colored balls and lights. A wooden sleigh overflowed with pinecones. A ceramic snowman with a top hat grinned back at him.
It should have been crowded, Jed thought. It certainly should have been messy. But somehow it was neither. Instead he had the impression of having opened some magic treasure chest.
In the midst of it all was his landlord. She wore a scarlet suit with a short straight skirt and a snugly fitted jacket. While her back was to him, he pursed his lips and wondered what sort of mood he’d been in the evening before not to have noticed that nifty little body.
Under Aretha’s rich tones, he heard Dora muttering to herself. Jed leaned against the doorjamb as she propped the painting she’d been holding on the sofa and turned. To her credit, she managed to muffle most of the squeal when she spotted him.
“Your door was open,” he told her.
“Yeah.” Then, because it wasn’t in her nature to be monosyllabic like her tenant, she shrugged. “I’ve been recirculating some inventory this morning—from up here to downstairs.” She brushed at her bangs. “Is there a problem, Mr. Skimmerhorn? Leaky plumbing? Mice?”
“Not so I’ve noticed.”
“Fine.” She crossed the room and moved out of his view until he shifted inside the door. She stood beside a pedestal dining room table pouring what smelled gloriously like strong coffee from a china pot into a delicate matching cup. Dora set the pot back down and lifted a brow. Her unsmiling lips were as boldly red as her suit. “Is there something you need?”
“Some of that wouldn’t hurt.” He nodded toward the pot.
So now he wanted to be neighborly, Dora thought. Saying nothing, she went to a curved glass cabinet and took out another cup and saucer. “Cream? Sugar?”
When he didn’t come any farther into the room, she took the coffee to him. He smelled like soap, she realized. Appealingly so. But her father had been right about the eyes. They were hard and inscrutable.
“Thanks.” He downed the contents of the fragile cup in two swallows and handed it back. His mother had had the same china, he recalled. And had broken several pieces heaving them at servants. “The old—your father,” he corrected, “said it was okay for me to set up my equipment next door. But since he’s not in charge I figured I should check with you.”
“Equipment?” Dora set his empty cup back on the table and picked up her own. “What sort?”
“A bench press, some weights.”
“Oh.” Instinctively, she took her gaze over his arms, his chest. “I don’t think that’s a problem—unless you do a lot of thudding when the shop’s open.”
“I’ll watch the thudding.” He looked back at the painting, studied it for a moment. Again, bold, he thought, like her color scheme, like the punch-in-the-gut scent she wore. “You know, that’s upside down.”
Her smile came quickly, brilliantly. She had indeed set it on the sofa the way it had been displayed at auction. “I think so, too. I’m going to hang it
the other way.”
To demonstrate, she went over and flipped it. Jed narrowed his eyes. “That’s right side up,” he agreed. “It’s still ugly, but it’s right side up.”
“The appreciation of art is as individual as art itself.”
“If you say so. Thanks for the coffee.”
“You’re welcome. Oh, Skimmerhorn?”
He stopped, glanced back over his shoulder. The faint glint of impatience in his eyes intrigued her more than any friendly smile would have.
“If you’re thinking of redecorating or sprucing up your new place, come on down to the shop. Dora’s Parlor has something for everybody.”
“I don’t need anything. Thanks for the coffee.”
Dora was still smiling when she heard his door close. “Wrong, Skimmerhorn,” she murmured. “Everybody needs something.”
Cooling his heels in a dusty office and listening to the Beach Boys harmonize on “Little St. Nick” wasn’t how Anthony DiCarlo had pictured spending this morning. He wanted answers, and he wanted them now.
More to the point, Finley wanted answers, and wanted them yesterday. DiCarlo tugged on his silk tie. He didn’t have answers yet, but he would. The phone call from Los Angeles the day before had been crystal clear. Find the merchandise, within twenty-four hours, or pay the consequences.
DiCarlo had no intention of discovering what those consequences were.
He looked up at the big white-faced clock overhead and watched the minute hand click from 9:04 to 9:05. He had less than fifteen hours left. His palms were sweaty.
Through the wide glass panel stenciled with an overweight Santa and his industrious elves, he could see more than a dozen shipping clerks busily stamping and hauling.
DiCarlo sneered as the enormously fat shipping supervisor with the incredibly bad toupee approached the door.
“Mr. DiCarlo, so sorry to keep you waiting.” Bill Tarkington had a weary smile on his doughy face. “As you can imagine, we’re pretty frantic around here these days. Can’t complain, though, no sir, can’t complain. Business is booming.”
“I’ve been waiting fifteen minutes, Mr. Tarkington,” DiCarlo said, his fury clear. “I don’t have time to waste.”
“Who does, this time of year?” Unflaggingly pleasant, Tarkington waddled around his desk to his Mr. Coffee machine. “Have a seat. Can I get you some of this coffee? Put hair on your chest.”
“No. There’s been an error, Mr. Tarkington. An error that must be corrected immediately.”
“Well, we’ll just see what we can do about that. Can you give me the specifics?”
“The merchandise I directed to Abel Winesap in Los Angeles was not the merchandise which arrived in Los Angeles. Is that specific enough for you?”
Tarkington pulled on his pudgy bottom lip. “That’s a real puzzler. You got your copy of the shipping invoice with you?”
“Of course.” DiCarlo took the folded paper from the inside breast pocket of his jacket.
“Let’s have a look-see.” His fat, sausage fingers moved with a quick, uncanny grace as he booted up his computer. “Let’s see now.” He rattled a few more keys. “That was to ship out on December seventeenth. . . . Yep, yep, there she is. She went out just fine. Should have arrived yesterday, today at the latest.”
DiCarlo ran a hand through his wavy black hair. Idiots, he thought. He was surrounded by idiots. “The shipment did arrive. It was incorrect.”
“You’re saying the package that plopped down in LA was addressed to another location?”
“No. I’m saying what was in the package was incorrect.”
“That’s an odd one.” Tarkington sipped some coffee. “Was the package packed here? Oh, wait, wait, I remember.” He waved DiCarlo’s answer away. “We provided the crate and the packing, and you supervised. So how in the wide, wide world did the merchandise get switched?”
“That is my question,” DiCarlo hissed, his hand slamming the desk.
“Now, now, let’s stay calm.” Determinedly affable, Tarkington hit a few more keys. “That shipment went out of section three. Let’s see who was on the belt that day. Ah, here we go. Looks like Opal.” He swiveled around to beam at DiCarlo. “Good worker, Opal. Nice lady, too. Had a rough time of it lately.”
“I’m not interested in her personal life. I want to speak to her.”
Tarkington leaned forward and flicked a switch on his desk. “Opal Johnson, please report to Mr. Tarkington’s office.” He flicked the switch off, then patted his toupee to make sure it was still in place. “Sure I can’t get you some coffee? A doughnut, maybe?” He tossed open the lid on a cardboard box. “Got us some nice raspberry-jelly-filled today. Some tractor wheels, too.”
DiCarlo let out a sound like steam escaping a kettle and turned away. With a shrug, Tarkington helped himself to a doughnut.
DiCarlo clenched his fists as a tall, striking black woman strode across the warehouse. She was wearing snug jeans and a bright green sweater with a Nike hip pouch. Her hair was pulled back in a curly ponytail. The yellowing smudges of old bruises puffed around her left eye.
She opened the door and poked her head in. The room was immediately filled with the noise of conveyor belts and the scent of nerves. “You call for me, Mr. Tarkington?”
“Yeah, Opal. Come on in a minute. Have some coffee?”
“Sure, okay.” As she closed the door, Opal took a quick scan of DiCarlo as possibilities raced through her mind.
They were laying her off. They were firing her outright because she’d fallen behind her quota last week after Curtis had knocked her around. The stranger was one of the owners come to tell her. She took a cigarette out of her pouch and lit it with shaky hands.
“We got ourselves a little problem here, Opal.”
Her throat seemed to fill with sand. “Yes, sir?”
“This is Mr. DiCarlo. He had a shipment go out last week, on your line.”
The quick surge of fear had Opal choking on smoke. “We had a lot of shipments going out last week, Mr. Tarkington.”
“Yes, but when the shipment arrived, the merchandise was incorrect.” Tarkington sighed.
With her heart hammering in her throat, Opal stared at the floor. “It got sent to the wrong place?”
“No, it got to the right place, but what was inside it was wrong, and since Mr. DiCarlo oversaw the packing himself, we’re baffled. I thought you might remember something.”
There was a burning in her gut, around her heart, behind her eyes. The nightmare that had plagued her for nearly a week was coming true. “I’m sorry, Mr. Tarkington,” she forced herself to say. “It’s hard to recall any one shipment. All I remember about last week is working three double shifts and going home to soak my feet every night.”
She was lying, DiCarlo decided. He could see it in her eyes, in her body stance—and bided his time.
“Well, it was worth a shot.” Tarkington gestured expansively. “Anything pops into your mind, you let me know. Okee-doke?”
“Yes, sir, I will.” She crushed the cigarette out in the dented metal ashtray on Tarkington’s desk and hurried back to her belt.
“We’ll start a trace on this, Mr. DiCarlo. With a red flag. Premium prides itself on customer satisfaction. From our hands to your hands, with a smile,” he said, quoting the company motto.
“Right.” He was no longer interested in Tarkington, though he would have found some satisfaction in plowing his fists into the man’s bulging belly. “And if you want to continue to enjoy the patronage of E. F., Incorporated, you’ll find the answers.”
DiCarlo circled the noisy shipping room and headed for Opal’s station. She watched his progress with nervous eyes. Her heart was thudding painfully against her ribs by the time he stopped beside her.
“What time’s your lunch break?”
Surprised, she nearly bobbled a box of cookware. “Eleven-thirty.”
“Meet me outside, front entrance.”
“I eat in the cafeteria.”
“Not today,” DiCarlo said softly. “Not if you want to keep this job. Eleven-thirty,” he added, and walked away.
She was afraid to ignore him, afraid to oblige him. At 11:30, Opal donned her olive-green parka and headed for the employees’ entrance. She could only hope that by the time she’d circled the building, she’d have herself under control.
She would have liked to skip lunch altogether. The Egg McMuffin she’d eaten that morning kept threatening to come back for a return visit.