MIAMI, late August
Some people steal for thrills. Others steal for simple profit or for dark, psychological reasons. Art recovery agent Avy Hunt stole for justice—or so she liked to tell herself. The truth was a little more complicated.
Avy certainly wasn’t a femme Robin Hood, since she worked on commission and eschewed green tights for the sheerest of thigh highs. She preferred a 9 mm Sig Sauer P230 to a cross-bow and usually avoided bands of merry men, since they tended not to keep their hands to themselves.
Only in the name of a job would she deliberately go home tonight (from the raucous Clevelander Hotel on South Beach) with this particular merry man. Dave Pomeroy, with his greasy, lurid grin and his I’m-a-multi-millionaire strut, gave her the creeps.
But here she sat in his giant black Hummer, dressed like the Cheap Trick he’d cranked up on the CD player.
South Beach on a late August Saturday night was a fast, sexy samba in a salt-tinged sauna. Spot-lit against a moody night sky, royal palms waved in the humid breeze like passing acquaintances who wouldn’t remember your name. Sand and ocean stretched to the right beyond the palms, and art deco hotels rose along the left, past Dave’s shoulder on the driver’s side of the vehicle.
Collectively, the facades of the lighted, pastel buildings looked like a Hollywood backdrop for some steamy soap opera. People were out on the town, dressed up or dressed down, indulging in dinners, drinks, dancing, deals and drugs. Laughter mingled with shouted insults and the bass of crawling car engines, their stereos playing everything from rap to rock to Brazilian dance music.
It was a short drive to Star Island, where Dave’s status symbol of a house stood. They were waved through at the guarded gate to the causeway, and the repulsive Dave decided to caress her knee as they traversed the water.
Avy forced herself to sit still until his fingers crept higher, at which point she dredged up a vacuous giggle and caught his ham-like hand in her own.
They turned into a long drive, where a pair of ornate wrought-iron gates opened as if by magic. The house that stretched before them looked more like a government building than a home. The architecture, with its harsh angles and sterile feel, was a bad rip-off of Le Corbusier.
Inside it was a mirrored white palace with all the warmth of a hospital. Their footsteps echoed like gunshots on the ceramic tile.
Pomeroy had the taste of a Vegas pimp. He’d decorated in Early Eighties Nightclub, except for the occasional big game trophy like the twelve-foot alligator in the corner of his living room. That added a cozy touch.
Avy let out an appropriate squeak of excitement, though, and Dave puffed up with pride. “You live here all by yourself?” she asked.
“Well, I have staff, honey, but they have the night off. Hey, you need to take a whiz? The john’s right there. I’ll make us some drinks.”
As she stood in his bleak silver powder room, Avy’s heart hurled against her rib cage and her stomach slid around like a big glob of mercury. Not fear, she told herself. Adrenalin. Nerves on edge before the job. Normal.
She took a disgusted look into the mirror at her temporary persona, vaguely surprised that she could even see out from under her tarantula-like false eyelashes.
A tight, shiny, black spandex micro mini-skirt rode her hips. A red push-up bra promoted her assets like a media blitz; the matching thong peeked out above the skirt like a paid endorsement. She’d done unspeakable things to her hair and applied her makeup with a trowel.
Bile rose in her throat–she looked a little too much like the type of woman her father occasionally took to a seedy motel.
She fingered the deluxe Swiss army knife that rested next to her lipstick in a satin cosmetics pouch. Normally she wore the Victorinox on a cord around her neck. Her dad had given the knife to her–his little tomboy–on her twelfth birthday, and in the seventeen years since, she’d worn off the brand name with use.
She’d cut her Barbie’s hair into a punk style with it; She’d carved her initials into trees and benches; as she’d grown up she’d employed the knife on more than one occasion to open everything from beer bottles to car and apartment doors. And that was all before she’d really learned how to use it.
Though she felt more like opening the knife than the lipstick, the red schmear was, for now, the better weapon. So she used it without compunction, then blotted her lips on a tissue.
This guy Pomeroy didn’t scare her. And besides, her trainee Gwen was right outside with her surveillance equipment. If Avy got into serious trouble, Gwen would have her back.
“Heads up,” Gwen’s voice said, through the tiny electronic bud in Avy’s ear.
Avy moved to the crack of the powder room door and watched, eyes narrowed, as her new friend Dave dropped something-—definitely not a vitamin–into her drink.
A rufie? And here she was dressed like a sure thing, too. She’d known that Dave Pomeroy was a smug bastard and a thief, but she hadn’t realized that he was also a rapist. How charming.
What are you up to, you bottom-feeder?
She backed silently away from the door and flushed the toilet, along with her brains and any vestiges of guilt over what she was doing and how she was doing it. Dave Pomeroy had something that didn’t belong to him, and as a full partner of ARTemis, Inc., stolen art recovery specialists, Avy intended to get it back.
She’d have preferred to do a clean break-and-enter, but security was tight here–no getting onto Star Island without the owner of the real estate. The likes of Shaquille O’Neal and Gloria Estefan wanted to enjoy their exclusive beachfront Pleasantville without security breaches.
So out of necessity she’d targeted Dave at the Clevelander, that famously rockin’ South Beach institution which hands out complimentary drinks, earplugs, aspirin and condoms upon check-in.
She’d rather have arrived on the island the way Gwen had, using a dive tank and fins, than let Dave practically hump her leg before inviting her home with him. But every job had its downside, didn’t it?
Avy considered her next move as the cold metal of the 9 millimeter strapped to her left thigh came into contact with the skin of her right one. Given the rufie, her first instinct was to pull the gun on Dave, demand the priceless bronze he’d had stolen, and walk out.
But she thought better of that idea, since if Dave turned ornery he could decide to press charges for armed robbery. Considering the hot art, it was doubtful . . . but it wasn’t completely outside the realm of possibility.
Avy grimaced. Law enforcement didn’t always take kindly to her methods of repossessing things for their owners. She figured it was mostly envy on their part—she had no red tape to deal with and a fat commission at the end, while they had that whole law-and-order thing going on without much reward. She’d made more money in five years of art recovery work than her U.S. Marshal father had in his lifetime.
She’d taken her occasional slaps on the hand–plenty of agents on the art recovery team had. But she wasn’t going to risk prison. So Avy settled on Plan B: No cops, a little dramatic flair, happy ending.
She closed her eyes for a moment and channeled sexiness and stupidity and availability—-which was the biggest illusion of all.
She pulled open the door and sashayed out to Dave in the ridiculously high, clear-plastic heels that were part of her costume. “Wow,” she said breathily. “This is some place you’ve got here.” She cast a look of awe out at the private beach, the infinity-edged pool and the 45-foot, state of the art Cigarette boat rolling in the waves.
Dave dragged his gaze up from her breasts and gave her the drugged Daiquiri with an oily smirk, displaying too many yellow-brown teeth.
She was repulsed by the hair product in his sparse fringe, the diamond in his earlobe and the sweet reek of his cologne. She wasn’t sure she could bear him touching her again.
Just business, Ave. Not personal.
“Drink up, darlin’,” he urged, swirling the ice in his snooty Scotch, an expensive, aged Laphroiag. Dave evidently had better taste in Scotch than he did in furnishings, but it gave him breath like moldy Bandaids. She moved away.
“Drink up,” he repeated. “I got a whole blender of those Daiquiris with your name on it.”
Do you, now? Well, I’ve got a toy surprise with your name on it, buddy. But Avy manufactured the most vacant smile in her repertoire and giggled before taking a “sip.”
“How’s that taste?”
Like anticipatory revenge. “Mmmmm. Perfect.”
Dave eased his bulk over to her and slid an arm around her shoulders while Avy tried not to shudder.
“Steady,” Gwen said into her ear. It was nice having company—-usually Avy worked alone.
Dave didn’t have a clue, but Gwen and her equipment were installed in his own sleek, phallic boat, completing Survey of Art Recovery 101. Her final exam would be her very own solo job.
Avy shifted uncomfortably as the air-conditioning vent in Dave’s floor blew a blast of cold air up her skirt.
He grinned again and tightened his arm around her. Dave had sticky fingers on more than one level. Their moist heat seeped through the thin fabric of her belly-baring top and she wanted to molt out of her own revolted skin and leave it behind with him. But that wasn’t possible, so she stayed still. Not personal . . .
Her mind departed the scene as he copped a good feel. Art recovery was personal for her, and had been since a cold night in Boston when she’d been a clueless museum intern, robbed at gunpoint, tied up and locked with her two co-workers in the coat-check room while three million dollars worth of art walked out the door.
She still remembered the shock of the easy ambush, the vulpine faces of the thugs, the fear, rage and guilt . . . the smell of musty wool and stale sweat and urine in the dark. One of the night guards had pissed himself when a gun was held to his head.
They’d all three spent the rest of the night in the coat-check, and when Avy got out she’d resolved never to be that helpless again.
She didn’t feel fear any longer.
Dave squeezed her ass—-how she’d love to break his metacarpals for that—-but she forced her body to stay passive. He would be expecting her to get woozy within minutes, as she drank more of the drugged Daiquiri.
They went through a few painful minutes of the smallest of small talk, during which she managed to distract him enough to pour some of the drink into a potted orchid.
Then she put a slightly trembling hand up to her temple. “Um, Dave?” she asked, laying her southern accent on thick. “Do you have some saltine crackers or somethin’? I feel kind of . . . funny. Prob’ly just too many cocktails on an empty stomach.”
He made an effort to appear sympathetic. “Sure, babe.” Dave unstuck his fingers from her tailbone and lumbered off to the kitchen, where he rooted around, giving Avy the opportunity to pour more of the Daiquiri into the potted fern near his terrace doors. When he came back with a plate of crackers, she swayed a little, which he noted with satisfaction.
“Do you want to lie down?” he asked, with more false concern, as he set the plate on the coffee table.
“No, no. I’ll just sit here on the sofa for a minute.”
Dave shrugged and looked at his watch. “Be my guest. Listen, I’ll be back in a few, babe—I’ve gotta make a phone call.”
Avy nodded and sank down onto his inflexible, black-leather sectional, leaning back against a prickly hair-calf pillow. She closed her eyes until his footsteps retreated, his hard-soled shoes echoing on the white ceramic tile that lined the whole house. Unfortunately his cloying cologne hung like a fat cumulo-nimbus in the air and refused to blow away.
Avy opened her eyes, turned her head and stared straight at the ancient Chinese bronze Dave had arranged to have stolen when the owner had refused to sell. Imprisoned in a Lucite box, the bronze looked utterly out of place in this house, as if it had been accidentally beamed here, an unfortunate victim of an evil time-travel machine.
A serene, dignified T’ang dynasty Buddha in the classic lotus position, the figure’s hands were clasped under his chin. He seemed to be praying for release—not only from the box, but from Pomeroy’s ugly, stark, contemporary interior and its stink of polyurethane and too-fresh paint.
This particular Buddha was worth a cool million, but the little guy didn’t seem to know or care. He just kept his eyes firmly closed against the spectacle of the only other statue in the room, a tasteless erotic nude on a lighted, revolving pedestal.
Avy eyed the Buddha in sympathy. Hang on for a few more minutes, okay? I’m about to get you out of here and back to your rightful owner.
Maybe it was crazy, but she often felt a kinship with the stolen art objects she repossessed for their owners. As if they had a spirit and that spirit had been kidnapped, too—held hostage in the name of acquisition, greed or money.
“Gwen,” she said softly into her wrist unit, which was disguised as a chunky gold-plate bracelet. “Confirm that alarm is still off.” Dave had disarmed it when they’d come in the front door, but she couldn’t be sure that he hadn’t turned it back on when she was in the powder room. You couldn’t be too careful in this business.
“Alarm off. Avy, watch out. The sick twist isn’t making any phone call. He’s setting up a video camera in the bedroom.”
Nice. Avy slid something that looked like a pink cell phone out of her big, shiny pleather bag. She stuffed the phone behind the calf-hair pillow.
“And he’s got, um, outfits on the bed for you to wear.”
Outfits? Dear God.
“Heads up. He’s walking your way, now.”
Avy slumped a little lower on the uncomfortable couch and let her head roll back. She channeled linguine as Pomeroy’s heels slapped back across the tile. Eyelids half-closed, she made a good show of struggling to a sitting position as he approached.
“Dan?” she murmured blearily, locks of teased hair falling into her face.
“That would be Dave,” he said.
“Dave . . . I don’ feel s’good. C’you take me . . . home?”
“Darlin’, I’m not taking you anywhere,” he said in a voice like used WD-40. “Except to bed.”
She nodded. “’Kay. Wanna . . . go sleep.”
“Yeah, that’s it. You go to sleep.”
Avy slid her hand under the calf-hair pillow and curled her fingers firmly around the pink plastic cell phone she’d hidden there. Then she let her eyes fall closed and her limbs go limp.
“Stupid bitch,” Dave said pleasantly. Then he bent forward and yanked down her bra and top to check out the goods.
Avy shot into motion, whipping out the pink cell phone and pressing it to his chest. Dave howled as 900,000 volts of electricity knocked him backwards to the floor. He lay there immobilized, eyes bulging, as Avy furiously righted her clothing.
“Self defense, Dave,” she said. “A girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.”
Avy walked calmly over to Pomeroy and set the toe of her plastic shoe against his chin. “You’re a real sad sack of shit, buddy. You know that?”
All he could do currently was drool like a baby, which was perfect since she was about to take his ill-gotten candy away from him.
Avy resisted the urge to kick Pomeroy and removed her shoe from his chin. “They make tasers in all shapes, colors and sizes now. Cute little thang, isn’t it?” Avy dropped the pink “phone” back into her pleather bag and made her way to the Lucite case. She lifted the cover off its stand and picked up the Buddha with care.
“Dave,” she said, shaking her head. “Didn’t your mama ever teach you that it’s wrong to steal? This doesn’t belong to you, honey, and the insurance company that wrote the policy on it–” she shrugged. “Well, they want it back. So does the owner.”
Dave just lay on the floor like a large, diseased catfish that had floated, belly-up, to the surface of a dirty Miami canal. She smiled sweetly at him, as she’d been taught to do almost from birth in her home town of Atlanta.
“I’m a high-class repo man, honey, and I show up just when people like you least expect me.”
Avy held the Buddha in her left hand—it was much heavier than seemed possible—and traced its contours with her right index finger. “What are you doing with this, Dave? I don’t think it speaks to you on any artistic or spiritual level. You sure don’t have anything else like it.”
She looked around the big white living room, at the television the size of Texas, the fully stocked bar, the retro pinball machine and the fierce twelve-foot alligator in the corner, the tail curled into an unnatural swirl.
“Nope. This statue is not your style. So why’d you steal it? Just because you didn’t like being told no? That’s my theory.”
“I’ll bet he tried to buy it to impress a woman,” Gwen said, entering from the terrace doors. She had a thin, almost fragile figure, big sweet eyes the color of dark honey and skin like café au lait. “It made him look bad when the guy said no. That’s the only possible explanation.” She recoiled when she saw the gator, and Avy grinned.
“Want to hire his decorator?” she asked, as Gwen shivered and ran a hand through her short, spiked dark hair. The orange streaks in it were oddly tasteful. Only Gwen could make the touch of punk look elegant.
“I think I’ll pass, thanks.”
“We need to get out of here,” Avy said. But conscious of her manners, she leaned down to say goodbye. “Dave, you reptile, since you like to drop pills into women’s drinks, I will be more than happy to drop a dime on you to the local cops. Don’t take care of yourself, you hear?”
Pomeroy just lay there, gazing up at her with loathing.
The little bronze Buddha in her hands kept his eyes closed and his hands together in prayer, but Avy could have sworn he was secretly smiling. She kissed his generous belly before wrapping him up in a flannel cloth and dropping him into her handbag.
Gwen looked from the figure on the floor to the figure in Avy’s hands and shot her a companionable smirk. She quickly changed into South Beach party girl duds and stowed her gear in a messenger bag.
They shut Dave’s frosted glass doors behind them and stepped out into the humid Miami night, where his color-coordinated shrubs and flowers all stood at rigid attention, clearly terrorized on a regular basis by a landscaping service.
Avy’s plastic sandals made hollow tapping noises on the brick pavers as they headed for Dave’s golf cart, their getaway vehicle. Her damned skirt slid up to dangerous heights as she and Gwen got into it, and the backs of Avy’s thighs stuck unpleasantly to the vinyl seats.
A symphony of night noises played for them as she turned the key in the cart and they drove quietly towards the island’s guarded entrance gate and the causeway to the mainland. Palms whispered in the breeze, bullfrogs made their throaty mating calls, waves gently slapped the shore.
Moments later, Avy pulled the golf cart up to the gate and she and Gwen flashed some helpful cleavage at the young, sandy-haired guard. “Hi . . . would you be a doll and call a cab for us? Our date kind of passed out and we want to get home.”
He took a dazzled look at Avy’s tanned, tautly muscled legs and dialed the phone without asking any further questions. When the taxi arrived, they tipped the guard generously. Then they climbed into the car and–mission accomplished–blew a goodbye kiss to Star Island.
“Good job, Ave,” Gwen said in a low voice.
Avy turned to her and winked as the cab sped away. She patted the little bronze guy in her handbag. “What can I say? I’ve never met a man I couldn’t handle.”
TAKE ME IF YOU CAN (ISBN# 978-0-451-22366-1)by Karen Kendall, an April 1, 2008 Signet release. All rights reserved.