“If you think they’re cheating, they probably are. Or you are, and you’re just trying to wipe your conscience.” – Shane, P.I.
I intimidate people. It’s one of my superpowers.
I learned the benefits of intimidation early. When I was thirteen, I was five feet-nine inches tall and could wield a well-timed glare like a weapon. Now in my late twenties and six-one, I had bravado, athletic ability, and superior survival skills to add to my arsenal of intimidating glares.
I also had a pretty badass array of prosthetic legs with cool functions and Swiss Army-type gadgets at my disposal, but most of my clients didn’t realize they were getting Black Widow with an Iron Man leg when they hired me. And monogamy-impaired Chicagoans certainly had no idea who was coming for them.
Another superpower, my private investigator’s license, added a little extra steel to my spine, which also helped disguise the limp that no amount of carefully-weighted titanium could erase.
The limp and the height were the reasons I’d arrived early to the little, out-of-the-way north side restaurant for my eharmony date with Chicago businessman Dane Quimby.
I say “date” because that’s what he thought it was. To me it was a job with a high probability of being mostly unpleasant, but also served with a side dish of smug satisfaction.
I use the Black Widow analogy because of my Iron Man leg, but I grew up on a steady diet of Charlie’s Angels reruns. Even though I’d been compared to Jaclyn Smith, the glamorous P.I., I was way more Kate Jackson, the athletic one. My own P.I. license had taken six thousand hours and a test to earn, and as far as I was concerned, the fact that it was only legal in California, where I’d lived until the previous year, was a technicality. To get a license in Illinois required a twenty-hour training course and forty hours of firearms training, neither of which I’d done. I wasn’t a fan of guns, and I didn’t really want my fingerprints on file with the State of Illinois, because … reasons.
So, there I was, waiting for a married guy to buy me dinner before he tried to get into my pants. They happened to be my favorite skinny jeans, with enough Lycra to make sitting possible without blood-flow constriction, and they were tucked into my super-favorite tall riding boots. The boots were flat and therefore comfortable. They also did a great job of hiding my prosthetic lower leg from casual judgment and stale notions of “handicaps.” Someone would have to get me naked to know I was a below-the-knee amputee, and no one but my dog ever saw me naked.
Dane chose the location for our date, which was notable for its lack of pretension, a curvy waitress, and a cheap menu. I had nothing but respect for large-busted women, since I could only imagine the back pain and underwire bras they endured. I was just as happy with the two-dimes-and-a-piece-of-tape version of lingerie which kept my nipples from becoming a distraction that diminished my powers of intimidation.
The waitress greeted Dane with an enthusiastic kiss on the cheek when he came in, and I smirked at the difference between his internet dating profile picture and the truth of him.
My date for the evening was somewhat vertically challenged and sported blond from a bottle. He had the athletic build of a man who did his treadmill miles with the Nasdaq scrolling under his news, and the smile of a shark who negotiated deals for a living.
His eyes found me with just the slightest double-take, and I watched him take stock of all my visible body parts with a vertical visual sweep as he approached the table.
“Sophie?” he asked, wearing his attempt at a rakish grin. I didn’t bother to point out the bit of something green stuck in his teeth. Sophie wasn’t my real name, of course. I am far too paranoid to use verifiable information on the internet, and a name came with a degree of identifiability that was outside my comfort zone – my comfort zone encompassing all four U.S. time zones.
I held my hand out to shake his. “Hello, Dane. It’s nice to finally meet you.”
Dane was obviously not paranoid enough, or just exceptionally cocky, as that actually was his real name. His wife hired me to discover if he’d been cheating on her, and it had only taken three internet searches and fifteen minutes to determine that he was on four dating websites and was practically a platinum member of Tinder.
He sat down across from me and shook his head with a chuckle. “You look exactly like your picture. I guess that means everything else in your profile is true?”
It had taken me twenty minutes to hack into the website and data-mine his search histories, and another ten to build a profile to match his wish list.
“Yes, I really am a tantric yoga instructor. Doesn’t everyone tell the truth online?” I said with nary a blink.
He licked his lips, and I felt queasy. “I can’t really talk about my time in Special Forces, so I guess you could say my profile is true-ish.”
It had taken thirty minutes of background checks using mostly public databases to determine he’d left the military in disgrace. “Oh, wow. Were you, like, a spy or something?”
He chuckled. “You’re from California, aren’t you?”
Smile. Blink. “I basically grew up on the beach.” I’d grown up backpacking in the Sierras, but I threw the guy a bone and added a bikini to his mental image of me.
“I always thought I should live in Cali,” he said. “I’d work out on the strand like those guys in Venice Beach, and be friends with movie stars.”
The effort not to laugh out loud was costing me. “I’ve seen those guys in Venice. You’d fit right in,” I simpered. My first job as an insurance investigator had been in Venice, and I’d had to navigate sneering gangbangers and strung-out homeless guys every day. Also, no one in California evercalled it Cali.
He held up a finger and did the “I’ll have what she’s having” thing to order a drink like mine. I smirked at the waitress’s raised eyebrow. Wouldn’t he be surprised when he got sparkling water with lime instead of the vodka tonic he thought I had?
“You must wonder what attracted me to you,” Dane said with a knowing smile.
Actually, I was mentally calculating my billable hours and hoping to be done here in less than thirty minutes because … round numbers. “You read my mind,” I said with a low, breathy voice. To my own ears I sounded asthmatic, but experience had taught me that horny guys dug breathless women.
Dane set his cell phone on the table next to him, screen up, so I’d see how very important he was when he got all those calls and texts he was expecting. A call from a number I recognized as his wife’s flashed on the screen as the phone buzzed, and he quickly declined it.
“Your profile says you’re looking for uncomplicated with a side of kinky,” Dane said, leaning forward to trace the path of ice sweat down the side of my glass. His meaningful glance was all imagine me doing this to you, and I barely suppressed a shudder as I forced a languid smile.
“I guess that’s one way to interpret my profile,” I said. The other way is to actually read the words, dumbass, which said I like simple pleasures and I’m open to trying new things. I pushed my drink away because he’d touched it and now his cooties coated it like crap smears on a public toilet. Dane took the gesture as an invitation to share, because he was presumptuous like that. He slid his hand down the outside of the sweaty glass with a suggestive wink. This guy had all the moves.
“So, tell me about tantric yoga.” His hand fisted up and down the glass before he took a big gulp. To his credit, he hid his shock at the bubbly lime-water well, but I shot the waitress a grateful smile when she set the fresh drink down in front of me.
“Are you ready to order?” she asked. Dane was about to answer, but I quickly interrupted.
“Could I have a minute?”
“Sure, take your time,” said Tiffani, with an “i” dotted by a smiley face sticker. She walked away with the self-assured hip-sway of a woman who knows her own appeal.
I turned my gaze back to Dane and answered his question with a slow, seductive smile. “Imagine the possibilities of a person who can hold her leg behind her head.”
I conveniently forgot to mention that said leg wouldn’t actually be attached to the rest of me at the time. I pictured my peg leg prosthetic resting on my shoulder like a wooden bat. Of course I had a peg leg prosthetic, because who wouldn’t?
Dane thought my low chuckle was for him, and I could just imagine the mental images with which he was torturing himself. And because the thought of giving him even a moment of pleasure was approximately as appealing as sucking all the snot out of a dog’s nose, I changed the subject.
“Tell me about yourself, Dane. What do you do? I mean now that you’re out of Special Forces, there must be something you do besides work out.”
He actually preened. “Oh, you know, I dabble in web development, mostly for social media.”
This guy was awesome! What he really did, according to my background check and an hour’s worth of research on his company, was sell digital ad space. It explained his confidence in the ex-Special Forces cover, because if you could sell the promise of eyeballs – not the actual eyeballs themselves, mind you, just the possibility that x-amount of people might look at your thing for the two seconds it takes to scroll past it – you could probably sell birth control pills to your Great-Aunt Fanny.
“You must be really good at computers,” I purred. Actually, I was trying not to giggle and had to drop my voice to keep from choking.
“Oh yeah, baby. I’m the best.”
Seriously, how had this guy ever gotten laid? Ever.
“Are you on Tinder?” I thought about batting my eyelashes, but decided I’d probably blink out a contact lens.
“Of course I am. Aren’t you?”
I shook my head and bit my bottom lip. I’d practiced the move in a mirror once and thought it made me look dim, but apparently dim was like catnip to men who lied to get laid. I looked at his phone. “Can I see your profile? I’ve been trying to decide if I want to join.”
His grin went wide, and he quickly unlocked his phone for me. “Sure,” he said, as he scooted closer and showed me the app. “You get in like this, and see, here’s my profile.”
“That’s a great picture,” I said. “You look super fit.” In the ten-year-old photo.
“I know, right? I get a lot of matches with that pic.”
“Do you mind if I scroll around for a minute, just to look?” I asked sweetly.
He waved his hand at me. “Go ahead. Just don’t swipe right on any ugly chicks.”
Just for that I’d be swiping right on the biggest, most redneck, Deliverance-looking guy I could find.
Tiffani approached the table again. “What can I get you, Dane?”
I silently blessed her for her timing, and after my right-swipe on Junior No-Teeth, I navigated to Dane’s Notes app, and about a second later air-dropped the whole file to my own phone. He had three banking apps in his office folder, and I clicked on one randomly. The account name was ADDATA, which was his business, so I switched to the next one. Dane was ordering something off-menu with a whole bunch of substitutions, so I took a minute to look back through his notes.
I had been counting on Dane’s arrogance and the simple statistics of probability, and neither one disappointed. The Notes app from his phone included a page of account information and passwords, which listed, among other vital things, his social security number and all his banking passwords. It took only a few more seconds to find Dane’s private bank account – the one which his wife suspected paid for his “entertainment” – and another minute to transfer half of the rather large sum of money into an account she’d already set up in her name. The wife had wanted to take it all, but I convinced her that a cornered dog was likely to bite, and she’d have a better chance of getting away with it if she left him some operating cash.
“Hey,” Dane said suddenly. I cursed myself for jumping as I pasted a smile on my face. “Since you have my phone, you should just put your number in my contacts.”
“Oh, sure. Do you want me to put it under my first or my last name?” I was pretty sure the answer would be neither, and he confirmed my suspicions.
“Just leave it open to that page, and I’ll add your name.”
I typed in the number to my favorite bankruptcy specialist as he finished up his elaborate, high-maintenance order with Tiffani, and then I slid the phone across the table to him.
Tiffani stood patiently, waiting for me to order. “I just need another minute. Go ahead and put his order in, okay?”
She shrugged charmingly. “Sure. I’ll get his appetizer started.”
“So, what do you think about Tinder?” Dane asked with a slow wink.
I bit my lip again and realized I’d chewed off all my lip balm in my attempts to appear unthreatening. Dry lips were my kryptonite, so I re-applied and took enough time so it seemed like a tease. “I’ve heard it can be hacked, and that makes me nervous. You seem pretty confident about putting your information online, though.”
He shrugged. “Oh yeah, my company has the best private security money can buy. No one can touch me without setting off alarms all over the place.”
I was about to ask about such mythical security, but just then Dane’s phone rang. Cipher Security Systems flashed on the screen as he picked it up.
“Speak of the devil,” he said with a grin. “I’ll just be a minute.” He answered the phone with a deep voice. “This is Dane,” he said importantly.
I looked up at Tiffani and said quietly, “I don’t think I can eat anything, thanks.” I’d heard about Cipher Security Systems, and they actually were pretty mythical. They were the kind of company banks used to check for hacking vulnerabilities. I hadn’t thought Dane’s business was big enough to rate that kind of protection.
Someone spoke briefly, and Dane answered. “At the Northside Cafe, why?”
My gut clenched in a way that usually signaled lactose intolerance or an attack of the flu. I didn’t like any association between Dane Quimby and Cipher Security Systems, much less one that placed me in Dane’s proximity.
I stood up to pull a twenty out of my back pocket, and Dane’s eyes widened as they followed me up and up and up.
He scowled and covered the phone again. “Where are you going?”
I nodded toward the phone in his hand. “You’re busy, and I have to prep for a colonoscopy tomorrow.”
He made a face and spoke into the phone again. “Hang on,” he snarled. Then he covered the mouthpiece again. “When can I see you?”
I brightened. “Why don’t I find you on Tinder and we can look for men to share.”
He frowned. “To share? But I’m not gay.”
I put on my saddest face. “You’re not? Oh, that’s too bad, because I am.”
Before he could untangle that ridiculous parting shot, I handed Tiffani the twenty as I headed for the door. “Thanks, Tiffani,” I said brightly. “Keep the change.”
“What happened to your leg?” she asked. “You okay?”
She must have seen my limp, and she looked sweetly concerned. Dane was still on his phone, and I could hear his voice rising angrily in the background.
“What do you mean you’ll be right here? Why?”
“Oh yeah, it’s nothing. Just a shark bite,” I said with a quick glance back at Dane before I stepped outside into the evening twilight.
I’d taken about five strides down the sidewalk when a big, black SUV barreled around the corner and screeched to a stop in front of the restaurant. The passenger shot out of his seat and stalked into the building so fast I barely caught a glimpse of a good suit and neck tattoos. The driver was still in his seat, and I could see his eyes on me in the side view mirror.
Something in those eyes locked my knees in place and forbade my legs to move.
Then the driver opened the car door and was out on the sidewalk facing me before I could exhale. I catalogued my options. Bond? Bond Girl? Or Bond Villain? I knew I looked good, and I could charm my way out of most situations, so Bond Girl was on the table. I’d worn a special knife holster on the titanium shaft of my prosthetic leg, invisible inside my boot, which gave me Bond powers of attack and defense. But I’d just emptied Dane’s private cootchie fund of half-a-million dollars and transferred it to his wife as payment for fifteen years of services rendered. So Bond Villain seemed appropriate too.
Then I took a breath and actually looked at the man on the sidewalk in front of me.
He wasn’t much taller or older than me, which made him about six-two or -three and put him in his early thirties. He wore a sharp, black suit tailored to make his shoulder-to-hip ratio look like an inverted triangle, which made me think quarterback instead of linebacker. He stood like a cop and dressed like a CEO, which made me think private security. If this was Cipher, I was in trouble.
An aura of power radiated from the man like wavy heat above a desert road. It didn’t help my temperature that the guy’s Idris Elba smolder threatened to set my skin and various articles of clothing on fire. For one insanity-filled moment, I imagined casually walking over and introducing myself.
I must have flinched, because his hand twitched toward a holster he wasn’t actually wearing. Then reality intruded on the fantasy. I was a Caucasian female alone in a predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood in Logan Square, having just committed something akin to a felony, albeit justly deserved, standing in front of a guy who probably used to be in some form of law enforcement.
And perhaps because I must have truly gone insane, I smiled at him. It was pure reflex, like the sigh at a spectacular sunset or the grin at a child’s laughter. He very nearly took a step toward me, then seemed to come to his senses and halted in place. It was at this point that I compounded my idiocy by accidentally waving to him as I turned to hurry away down the street.
Who waves at the guy who could probably bust her butt ten ways from Tuesday?
Finally, cold logic, survival skills, and James Bond took over control of my hands. I powered down my phone, took out the battery, and tucked both into my back pockets as I walked. I also ducked down an alley and circled back on myself twice. I never carried a purse if I could help it – my phone, keys, a credit card, my Ventra card for the CTA, lip balm, and two twenties were all I ever had on me.
I half expected squealing tires and slamming doors to find me before I got to Fullerton, but remarkably, I made it onto my bus unimpeded. My heart still pounded uncomfortably in my chest as I dropped into a seat, and it annoyed me that I had reacted so strongly. Was it because the philandering asshat I’d just relieved of five hundred grand had connections to Cipher Security, or was it the Man in Black who had made my stomach clench in a way that was decidedly not like lactose intolerance or the flu? I was almost grateful for the two young hoods who sat down across from me and leered suggestively.
Seriously boys? That’s all you’ve got? I front-loaded disdain into my pointed glare until they got up and slid down the bus, leaving me alone with my slamming heart.
I’d just hijacked Dane Quimby’s phone and moved half his money into his wife’s account. How long until someone connected the dots between my “date” with Dane and the missing money?
I absently rubbed the skin above my leg socket and let my head fall against the window. I might have even tapped my head against the glass a couple of times to drown out the whooshing sound of impending doom that filled my ear