Michael Bruce walked across the main lobby of the Van Devanter Hotel, shoving his phone back into his lapel pocket. The building was named after a Supreme Court justice from the early 1900s. Built in the World War II era, the architects had tried to incorporate elements of the man’s stature and charm into the interior design. Even though it had been modernized in the past few years, the hotel still had an art deco look which Michael loved. In fact, when the building had been up on the auction block a few years earlier, Bruce had made an aggressive bid for its acquisition. He ended up losing the deal, but took heart in the fact that the building went back to the heirs of Van Devanter himself.
The main ballroom of the building was amazing. A giant chandelier hung in the middle with a half dozen smaller fixtures surrounding it. The walls were pure marble with gold inlay, and there was plush red carpet covering the floor. The space could accommodate 1500 guests easily, but on this occasion, half of the area was blocked off and it held a much smaller crowd. Despite all of its beauty and luxuries, Michael realized the ballroom lacked one significant quality: good cell-phone reception.
“Did you get a hold of Yule?” Ravenswood tugged at his collar. He looked far different outside of his Overcast uniform. A bit shorter than Michael, with dark brown hair and brown eyes, he had shaven his usual five o’clock shadow for the event.
“Yeah. He’s not going to be able to make it. Stuck at the office.”
Ravenswood’s fiancée stood next to him, nursing a glass of club soda. “Doesn’t he hate these kind of things, anyway?” she asked, dabbing a napkin at a spot of water which had fallen onto her blouse.
“He likes parties, he just hates politicians.”
As if on cue, the guest of honor for the evening appeared from around the corner. Timothy Ehrich had been governor of the state for two terms before heading to the U.S. Senate. His big accomplishments while in Washington had been preserving the area’s wildlife while promoting growth in commerce and real estate development. It was a difficult juggle, but something that had gained the man high respect in Michael’s eyes. High respect... and a big campaign donation.
“Michael, how are you?” The senator grabbed his palm with a firm grip. “Glad you could make it.”
“You know you can count on my support.” The billionaire glanced around the room. “Looks like a nice turnout. Should put a boost in the coffers.”
“I hope so. Donations are down.” The senator flagged one of the waiters and grabbed a glass of wine from the tray. “This economy doesn’t help, either. Whenever there’s a downturn, the public blames the incumbent.”
“Sometimes it is the incumbent,” Ravenswood muttered.
“Not this time,” Michael said. “You’ve done a damn good job, Tim. We just have to hope we can convince the voters of that.”
An African-American man approached the group. Though he was dressed in civilian clothing, he had a police badge clipped to his belt. “Senator, the Mayor just arrived. He’s looking for you.”
“Yes, yes, of course. If you’ll excuse me.”
As the Senator disappeared into the crowd, the man leaned close to Michael. “Actually, the Mayor’s wife is looking for him, but that’s a whole other scandal.”
Michael snickered, grabbing the man’s hand. “How are you, Aaron?”
Aaron Brooks was police captain of the fourth ward, the part of town where crime was the norm. Filled with drug dealers, prostitutes, chop shops, and car-trunk flea markets, rumor had it that Brooks had been placed in the area not to clean it up, but to drive him off the force. Aaron had nearly quit due to work pressures—as well as the numerous death threats to his family. However, he had been determined not to let the people down. He started fighting back, organizing community initiatives to regain control of the streets. The grassroots efforts blossomed, and after months of hard work, he had managed to stabilize the area. His work had been so successful, it earned him public notoriety, and a commendation from City Hall.
Oddly enough, it wasn’t through crimefighting that Michael had first met the man. Lloyd Brooks, Aaron’s father, was the founder of Brooks Bar-B-Que, the largest “chicken and ribs” chain in Gale. Several years earlier, Brooks had been in the middle of a major expansion and wanted to lease several buildings. It had been one of Michael’s first real estate deals. Unfortunately, his inexperience worked against him and a rival company nearly picked up the contract. It was Aaron who had convinced his father to work with Bruce Development instead of the other firm.
Michael gestured to the couple beside him. “You remember Ravenswood Cadavre and Melody Krol.”
Aaron nodded. “Yes. I think we met at your holiday party. How are you folks?”
Ravenswood squirmed again. “Better if I didn’t have to wear this tie.”
Melody elbowed her fiancé and then extended a hand to the police captain. “We’re well, thank you. Your father is the one running for Mayor, isn’t he?”
“Yeah, running for his life.” Aaron groaned. “I don’t know whatever possessed him to try for public office.”
Michael shot the woman a look, hoping to convey that it wasn’t a good idea to start that topic of conversation. She caught his glance and shifted gears. “There’s quite a few famous people here. I didn’t know the Senator was so well-liked. I saw Sheila Kane over by the buffet table, and Derek Lake in the lobby.”
“Well, I think celebrities like these things. It makes them feel important that they can help a cause. Martin Bling is here, too.”
“Bling?” Michael and Ravenswood spoke in unison.
Aaron laughed, aware of the long-time rivalry between Michael and the man behind Bling City. “Yeah, turns out he knew the senator back in Tennessee, before he got into politics. They’re old friends.”
Michael turned, his eyes scanning the room. His gaze swept past the bar, the dining area, and the big screen t.v. playing election ads. He stopped as he caught a glimpse of the middle-aged businessman and his date. “Who’s that red-head on his arm?”
“His girlfriend, Sara Wolff. She runs one of the local orphanages.”
The woman was fairly young, probably mid-twenties. Short, with green eyes and auburn hair that reached to the middle of her back, she was wearing a blue gown decorated with gold flowers. Although Michael thought she was attractive, she was far from the tall, lanky bombshells Bling was famous for hooking-up with. “Where’d he meet her? She doesn’t look like his type.”
“I don’t know. But it must be serious. They’ve been dating for five months.”
“Five months,” Melody gasped. Martin Bling was famous for his whirlwind romances, most of which lasted only a few weeks. “I’m surprised no one has mentioned marriage yet.”
Ravenswood’s eyebrow arched. “I dunno. The way he was scoping out that waitress, I’m not sure it’ll be that much longer.”
“I actually work with her quite a bit, on community stuff. Let me introduce you.” The police captain waved, grabbing the woman’s attention. It took a few moments, but the redhead managed to weave through the dense crowd and joined them.
“Sara, have you met Michael Bruce?”
The woman thought for a moment. “I was going to say I had, but now I’m not so sure.” She blushed. “But I feel like I know you. I’ve heard so much about you from Martin.”
“Oh, that can’t be good,” Michael laughed. Turning, he introduced his friends.
The group made idle chit-chat, discussing the senatorial election before moving on to unimportant ramblings about the waitstaff and food. The whole time Michael studied the woman, taking in her appearance, speech, and mannerisms. The fact Bling had been dating her for so long was significant, and he realized she might be more than mere eye-candy. It was possible she was actually close to him... and his business dealings.
“So, Aaron tells me you do a lot of work together,” he commented when there was a lull in the conversation.
“Yes. We’re both pretty active in the safe kid initiatives.”
“Sara started the Emergency Child Stabilization Project,” Aaron added.
The fact impressed Michael. He followed child welfare issues closely and was familiar with the effort. “That’s a great program. It’s done a lot of good work for displaced kids.”
“It’s a cause close to my heart. I was displaced for a while after my parents died. It’s hard for a child not to have a safe place to stay, so I wanted to do something to prevent that from happening here in Gale.”
Despite his suspicions of the woman, Michael couldn’t help but be taken by her. There was a kindness in her eyes and she seemed sincere when she spoke. “I think it’s a noble effort,” he reiterated. “I wish there were more programs like that.”
“Well, we’re always looking for sponsors,” she said, giving him a small nudge.
“I thought I was your big donor.” Martin Bling appeared from the crowd and moved next to the woman. He was dressed in a gray power suit with a bold red tie. “I wondered where you’d disappeared to.”
“Aaron was introducing me to Michael Bruce and his friends.”
The man looked irritated, but forced a smile. “I see that. Hello, Michael. I heard Marcus beat you out on that Main Street deal. Tough break.”
Michael rolled his eyes. Bling’s cockiness never ceased to amaze him. Everyone knew Marcus was his strawman. The comment was no more than his attempt to rub salt in the wound. “There’s always next time.”
The casino mogul glanced at Melody and Ravenswood, then back at his competitor. “No date?”
“I’m not seeing anyone right now.”
Bling grinned and snaked his arm around his girlfriend’s waist. “Well, I’d love to chat, but Joe Ness is here. Want to get a chance to talk with him before you do. Ta-ta.”
“Martin, don’t be rude,” Sara said in a harsh whisper. She waved her hand as Bling pulled her back into the crowd. “Nice meeting you.”
Aaron waited until the man was out of earshot, then grumbled. “That guy is such a slime. I don’t know what she sees in him.”
“What every woman sees in him,” Melody said. “A huge bankroll.”
The captain shook his head. “I didn’t think she was like that.”
Through the whole interaction with Sara and Bling, Ravenswood had been silent. It was a fact Michael found odd, particularly since the private-eye never passed up an opportunity to insult the gambling tycoon. With the couple gone, he focused his attention on his friend.
“Sara Wolff. I’ve heard that name before.”
His face twisted and he shook his head. “That’s just it, I’m not sure.”
Before the billionaire could inquire further, a uniformed man pushed through the crowd and whispered something into Brooks’s ear. Aaron’s brow furrowed as he turned back to the three friends.
“Well, it’s been nice talking to you all, but I have to get going. Duty calls.”
“Anything serious?” Michael asked casually.
“We just got news of a warehouse robbery. The perps are heavily armed.”
“Oh,” Melody gasped, pulling her fingers to her mouth. “That sounds scary.”
“It’s okay. Typical stuff. My men are on it, plus we have a call in to the Black Torrent.”
The cell phone in Michael’s pocket began to ring.
The captain glanced at his friend, his eyebrow arching. Michael flashed an awkward smile. “Forgot to put it on vibrate.” Pulling out the device, he glanced at the screen. “It’s Christine. Probably wants to talk to me about the board meeting today. I’ve got to take this. Be safe, Aaron.”
“Thanks, man.” The captain and his subordinate disappeared into the crowd.
“Of all the times to get reception.” Michael glanced around to make sure no one else was nearby, then read the details as they scrolled across the screen. “Looks like the industrial park near Morton’s cemetery.”
“How long do you think we should wait before showing up there?” Melody asked. “I’m ready for a little crimefighting action.”
“Let’s leave now. By the time we get changed, it should be good.” Michael glanced at his friend who still seemed lost in thought. “Ray, you coming?”
“Yeah.” The detective shook his head, then glanced around. “Hey, where’s Aaron? And where are we going?”
Pulling on his arm, Melody shook her head. “Just, c’mon.”
* * * * *
Sara jogged ahead, opening the door to her apartment. Three of the girls had come by earlier to play castle. She quickly gathered the princess dress, tiara, play sword, and stuffed dragon, and shoved them behind the couch. She would have cleaned before leaving, but she hadn’t expected Martin to drive her home—or ask to come in.
The middle-aged businessman entered, a smile across his lips. “Did you see how I nailed that deal? I’ve been trying to get in to see Ness for months. He’s always been a Bruce man, but I wowed him. What was it? Ten minutes? Ten minutes and I got a verbal commitment.”
“You are the best,” Sara whispered under her breath. The truth of the matter was that Martin Bling knew how to negotiate like no other. She had seen him close multi-million dollar deals over lunch, as well as talk reluctant little old ladies into investing their nest eggs in his company.
That’s his super-power, she thought with a smirk.
Swaying to the music in his head, Martin slid next to her. He was in a good mood, and when Martin was in a good mood there was one way he best liked to celebrate. He wrapped his arms around her waist and pressed his mouth hard against hers.
Sara leaned into the kiss for a moment, but quickly pulled back.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
It irritated Sara that he should be so oblivious. “I’m still mad at you.”
“I’ve been calling you for the last week and a half and you’ve been blowing me off. Your secretary even admitted it. There’s only so many excuses one can make.”
“Ah, Sara, you know I’ve been busy.” Martin unbuttoned his suit jacket. “I get that way. I get all absorbed in business and I don’t think about anything else.”
“Not even sex?”
Martin smirked, his finger running up her arm. “I always think about sex.”
“You could have called,” she said as she turned to gather more toys from around the room.
The man undid the knot in his tie. “I did call you, to invite you to this party. And now you’re going to go and ruin it for me.”
Sara expected the guilt trip. He always pulled it out of the hat when an argument wasn’t going his way. “All I wanted was a few minutes of your time.”
Martin took the stuffed bear from her hands and tossed it aside. “Now you have all of my time... and attention.” He pulled her close, his hand stroking her face. “I am sorry. Do you forgive me?”
Sara stared into the man’s hazel eyes. As much as she wanted to give in, she had made up her mind that she wasn’t going to let him take advantage of her; she was going to show him that simply saying ‘sorry’ wasn’t good enough. She was determined to have him go home... alone.
“I do forgive you.” She pulled his fingers away from her cheek. “But, I’m not sleeping with you tonight.”
The alarm snapped on, the beeping filling the room. Sara rolled over, her hand slamming the snooze button. The clock read 8:00. Across the room, Martin was in front of the mirror, adjusting his tie. He glanced in her direction and smiled. “Good morning.”
“How long have you been up?”
“About an hour. I hope you don’t mind, but I showered and made a pot of coffee.”
Sara slid out from under the blankets, grabbing her robe from the chair. “You should have woken me.”
“You looked too peaceful sleeping.” The man grabbed his keys and money clip from the top of the dresser and shoved them into his pocket. “Besides, I need to get going.”
Sara tried to rub the tiredness from her eyes. “I was hoping we could go to breakfast or something.”
“Sorry, but I’ve got a meeting this morning.” He ran a comb through his brown salt and pepper hair. “We can do dinner tonight, if you’d like.”
Sara was disappointed, but didn’t want to show it. “That would be nice.”
“Damn, I really have to get out of here.” Moving to the door, his hand hung on the knob. “I got a call this morning from one of my colleagues. I’ve been storing some stuff at a local warehouse, but there was a burglary attempt last night. Nothing was stolen, but I’m nervous now. Would you mind if I moved a few boxes into the garage here? It’d just be for a couple of days, until I get payment from the buyer.”
“What are they?”
“Bling City souvenirs. Mugs and shot-glasses and stuff.”
“Okay. Just have them call Madge, I’ll let her know.”
“You’re the best. I’ll see you tonight.”
As the door closed, Sara plopped down on the bed. She had planned to spend the morning with Martin and now didn’t know what to do with herself.
“Burglary?” she whispered. Moving to the computer in the corner of the room, she grabbed the mouse and clicked on the internet browser. “I wonder what that’s all about.”