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The Menage a Trois by Katy Leen.png

 

chapter one

“THIS IS IMPOSSIBLE,” I whispered into my mobile. “How am I supposed to get pictures of the guy from inside this sweatbox?”

It was late at night and spring had just sprung in Montreal. Which meant rather than arctic winter temperatures outside, evening lows hovered closer to 0°C. But where I was, it felt more like August in New York.

Camille Caron, my best friend and co-boss, sighed at me through the phone. “Regarde, Lora. At the second level in the front. There’s a hole in the frosting. Use that.” And she clicked out.

I scoped the enclosure that surrounded me. It was circular. There was no front.

“I think she means there,” the woman crouched beside me said and pointed a lace-gloved finger to her right. The woman’s name was Marlene but she went by Silver Spoon. So far, I’d avoided calling her that. It was hard calling a grown woman Silver Spoon.

I squinted, trying to see better in the near dark, the only source of light in our sweatbox abode coming from a tiny battery-powered dome globe resting on the floor, its glow weak, like a night light with a dimming bulb. I clicked on the flashlight mode on my phone and directed the beam of light towards where Silver’s finger pointed to a small, rectangular wedge cut into the side of our accommodations. A tiny knob stood out in the center of the wedge and hinges held it in place at the top.

I shut off the light beam and crept forward, careful not to ensnare Silver’s frilly spaghetti strap draping from her shoulder. We were scrunched together tighter than raisins in a box. It was enough we were sharing limited space, we didn’t need to be sharing clothes, too. Especially since she didn’t have many to spare and my jeans and blouse were staying put.

I neared the wedge and reached up to grab hold of its tiny knob, but Silver got to it first. She lifted it to reveal a tiny opening to the outside.

“Oops,” she said, looking out through the hole. “It’s almost time.”

She let the flap close and eased back, pausing to take a swig from her water bottle, place the bottle at her feet, plump her chest, and steady the mesh fabric flowing from a bejeweled crown on her head.

I waited until her elbows lowered, then I squeezed past her to the makeshift lookout and peered out. The lookout opening was maybe two inches long, an inch tall, and three inches deep, and it narrowed towards the exterior end so that my view focused on the round table I’d seen on my way in. Empty then, the table was kitted out with poker greens now, seven twentysomething men crammed around it, cards in hand, booze in reach. On the wall behind them, some action movie played, sound off, rock music playing in its place.

One man at the far side of the table had a lacy, red garter stretched around his forehead. Johnny, the guest of honor I figured, just a typical groom-to-be enjoying his last night as a bachelor. And my objet d’intêret of the evening.

Either that was one giant garter he wore or he had one puny head. It was hard to tell which from my funnel-lookout. But that wasn’t my concern. My concern was how I was going to get a clear shot of Johnny in his wheelchair if the poker table was in the way. Not to mention the husky guy sitting with his back to me, crew-cut hair standing at attention, ears like coasters. His backside shifting sideways, back and forth, like a dog dragging his hindquarters to scratch.

“Is there any way to move this thing?” I asked Silver.

She stopped primping and looked at me. “You mean this hunk-a-junk fake cake we’re in? Not from inside. It’s got wheels to push it around but no motor or anything.” She paused when the music in the room slipped into a thumping beat, then she started up the short ladder leading to the trap door in the narrow fifth tier up top. “Here we go,” she said. “That’s my cue.” She nodded down at me and dropped her voice to a low whisper. “Ready?”

I nodded back at her, held my cell phone up to the lookout, and clicked on the camera function. The phone’s display area mirrored back my own face—blue eyes blinking, wisps of auburn hair escaping my pony tail and clinging to my cheeks, spooky shadows shading my pale skin. I tapped the “reverse camera” icon and my reflection disappeared and the poker table came into view. I panned the phone over the men at the table, watching as Johnny’s friends exchanged small grins.

The music got louder and the men stood, some tottering a bit, some faster, and whisked aside the poker table. Johnny looked up, his face growing angry, his mouth spewing expletives. Above me, Silver whipped open the top hatch on our fake hunk-a-junk cake and popped out, stopping Johnny’s rant short when his glassy eyes locked onto her.

He whistled and let out a hoot. “Come on a little closer, sweet thing. Johnny don’t bite,” he said, intertwining his fingers into a stretch, his face relaxing into a smile.

The music thumped and a giant image of Silver replaced the movie on the wall screen. Then my phone camera picked her up “live and in person” gyrating over to Johnny in her skimpy fantasy bride get-up, peeling off her long gloves and flinging them away as she lowered herself onto his lap.

His arms opened and his hands disappeared from view.

Eww. I had to force myself not to turn away. This was the picture Camille wanted. Johnny caught in the, er, heat of the moment with Silver, hopefully moving his back. Even better, getting out of his wheelchair.

I, on the other hand, wanted a shot of Johnny exactly where he was. C’mon, Johnny, don’t move, I silently begged him. Let’s show that insurance company you’re not cheating them out of your big fat disability check.

I kept the camera focused while Silver did her thing. Nothing extra, nothing to trick Johnny into moving. I specifically asked her not to. That would be entrapment. I worked for C&C, a reputable PI agency. Camille and her ex-cop brother Laurent ran a clean shop. No setups or entrapment allowed. Just pure observation. And if that observation happened to get caught on camera in a club, all the better to show our client, Assurance Lion, the insurance company paying Johnny disability for the back injury he got some two months ago at his warehouse job where an accident left him so incapacitated he needed a wheelchair, only not so bad off that he needed surgery.

Johnny claimed to have done in three of his disks when a co-worker nearly ran into him with a forklift. Johnny’d had to dive out of the way and slipped in a puddle of grease he said had leaked from said forklift. The accident happened in a corner of the warehouse with limited security camera angles, making it hard to substantiate the details. And Johnny’s x-rays came from one of those slipshod doctors popular with the insurance scamming crowd. So naturally Assurance Lion was suspicious of the validity of the injury. Or at least the extent of it. It was my job to prove they were right about it being a faulty claim and save them the big bucks of paying Johnny indefinitely.

Only I believed in giving people the benefit of the doubt. After all, maybe Johnny had no clue his doctor was fuzzy on ethics. This was Montreal. People had public health care and referrals to specialists came from primary physicians. Probably Johnny had nothing to do with choosing which doctor he saw. Probably Johnny was in legitimate pain, slipshod doctor or not.

I had better lighting now that the cake lid was open, and I snapped a few pictures, trying not to look too closely at the view screen on my phone. The music had morphed into a new song and Silver was dancing for Johnny now, maybe a foot away from him, allowing me a clear view of his glazed eyes and partly open mouth. His foot tapped to the music and his butt stayed in his chair as the other men rhythmically clapped off-camera.

Then the song ended and so did Silver’s dance. And the clapping was replaced by grumbling. But not for long. Silver said something to the crowd that got them happy again and put a grin on Johnny’s face. Probably Silver’s résumé included wrangling drunken men as a skill.

She moved out of view and I heard a door open. A short man walked into my sight, lots of dark hair shellacked to a high gloss finish, lots of coat flapping. Behind him, two larger men trailed in, both reminding me of bookcases with feet—tall and wide but lacking in depth.

The short man barked something at Johnny and the two bookcase goons widened their foot stance and crossed their bulky arms over their bulky chests.

Johnny’s face went pale, and I brought my phone down and peered out directly, my head pressed up as close as I could get to my peek-a-boo slot. With my wider scope, I could see more now, a few of the poker buddies unsteady on their feet, the others nearly rigid in place. Silence fell on the room, and I was getting the feeling the three new arrivals were attending the bachelor-party-poker-shindig sans invitation.

One of the bookcase goons broke the silence when he stepped forward and swept up the pile of poker money on the table. All of it, the pot in the middle and the small mounds the men had left by their cards.

Then the room started spinning.

No, wait. That was me. I was spinning, the hunk-a-junk cake suddenly whirling like a merry-go-round.

The cake lid slammed shut and I tipped over, my phone dropping from my hand and skidding away. I flailed and managed to grab onto the base of the ladder inside my cake sweatbox-cum-merry-go-round, hoping I wouldn’t hurl. I heard thuds out in the room, a few high-pitched wails, some heavy breathing. The cake got knocked, alternating the spinning. Something crashed into the side and bashed it in, and I gripped the ladder harder and tucked my head between my arms.

I held tight until the spinning started to slow and come to a winding stop, the noise in the room coming to a stop along with it.

My hair had come loose from its ponytail and dipped onto my face as I let go of the ladder and crawled over to look out my peephole. The table was overturned, chairs were broken, booze bottles were smashed, Silver’s veiled crown lay on the floor. And everybody was gone. Except Johnny, his head slumped to his chest, still sitting in his wheelchair. 

 

CHAPTER TWO

CAMILLE ARRIVED JUST about the same time as the authorities. And after the paramedics took Johnny, unconscious but alive, to the hospital.

So far, I’d learned squat about what happened to Johnny. I’d sloshed through puddles of pooling alcohol from the broken bottles, sidestepping shards of glass, and rushed to his side when I got out of the cake. But all I got from Johnny when I reached him was a head roll, a groan, and a handsy pass at my derrière.

Once the paramedics arrived and took over, I was whooshed away and Johnny went quiet and still again, a bruise starting to show on his cheek and a trickle of blood tainted with the stench of Scotch seeping from the side of his mouth. More blood was splattered on his shirt and the tips of his bright white Nikes. I listened in as he was examined, but the paramedics spoke lots of French and I spoke little, making eavesdropping difficult.

Then Camille blew in and chatted up some young cop before making her way over to me. Her long, fitted, blue trench coat hugged her lithe body. Her pixie-cut blonde hair was smoothed back. And her tall, black boots were darker near the bottom and along the toes, dampened no doubt from the monsoon of rain that had soaked Montreal all day in a spring marathon of torrential baptisms.

Camille looked me up and down and shook her head. She didn’t have to tell me what she was thinking. This turn of events would bode about as well for us as it did for Johnny.

But like best friends sometimes do, we were going to gloss over that bit for now. “T’es correcte?” she asked me. “You’re okay?”

I nodded. I gave her a brief report on my photo shoot mission and told her about my ride in the spinning cake. Then I asked if her conversation with the cop had shed any light on exactly what happened to Johnny.

Probablement too much drink or too little head protection,” she said. “Maybe both. We’ll know for sure after a head scan.”

“I can’t figure out how Johnny’s friends could just leave him like that.”

She shrugged. “Maybe not by choice.” She ushered me to the corner of the room and held out her hand. “Passe-moi ton cellulaire.” She wiggled her fingers. “Your phone, Lora. Let me see the pictures. They will tell us more, no?”

When I hesitated, she leaned towards me and lowered her voice. “Don’t tell me you gave the phone to the police already. Mais voyons, Lora. I told you before, always wait for me before giving anything to the police.”

“I did wait.” I reached into my pocket, pulled out the phone, and held it out to her. A drip of water trickled onto my finger, easing out from the phone’s edge where the seam sat loose. Another bit of water squeezed out from the glass top now etched with web-like cracks, cracks forming an intricate pattern that would make Charlotte the spider proud.

Camille looked down at my hand and back up at me, and she shook her head again.

I wanted to shake my head too. She wasn’t nearly as upset as I was that the phone hadn’t survived the spinning, bashed-in cake episode well. Not to mention the attempted drowning the phone endured, a drowning I could only guess came courtesy of Silver’s abandoned water bottle spilling during the whirl and twirl. I’d had the phone barely two months, courtesy of my first undercover case. When the case ended, I’d been given the souped-up phone as a souvenir bonus of sorts. And now that it was bashed and water-logged in the line of duty, I’d have to go back to my old clunker phone.

I felt a tap at my shoulder and a plastic baggie appeared at my side.

“Drop it in here, mon petit lapin.”

The lapin nickname was another souvenir from the undercover case. One my other boss, Camille’s brother Laurent, gave me and still used now and then.

He looked me up and down like Camille had, only slower, his eyes resting briefly on the tear in the thigh of my jeans where they’d snagged on the ladder on my way out of the cake. Laurent had dark unruly hair, perpetual three-day scruff, nearly black eyes, and he was wearing a brown jacket and jeans and stood like he’d just come from the gym.

“Which one of you wants to tell me what Lora was doing in that cake?” he said, his tone low but slipping into cop voice. The voice that drove women nuts and made men spill their guts. The voice he’d honed during his days on the police force before he quit to open the PI agency.

Camille narrowed her eyes at him, and I focused on the now blank movie screen on the wall. Just once, it would be nice if Laurent weren’t such a great PI. Or if he would at least save his skills to use on someone other than me.

I willed myself not to succumb to cop voice but truth be told I was seconds from cracking. Camille and I had committed a big no-no. I was still a lowly PI in training on assistant status. It was against the rules for me to do any field work solo without supervision by a licensed investigator. Not being a huge fan of rules, I may, on occasion interpret that rule a little broadly. As did Camille, who was known to bend a few rules when it suited her. But not Laurent. Laurent liked his rules nice and straight. Probably he wouldn’t buy that Camille was supervising me by phone while I took pictures from inside a tiered slab of cake-shaped plastic dressed up in faux frosting and rounded curves. Nary a straight line in sight.

Mais voyons,” Camille said, saving me from cracking. She nodded her head in my direction. “Regarde. She fit better, no?”

I smiled. This was true. Petite, barely five foot two little old me had to crouch and contort myself to take up my vigil in the cake. Camille was at least half a foot taller. She never would have fit. Not along with Silver. The way we saw it, we weren’t so much breaking rules in this case, we were just doing our best to serve the client.

Laurent shot us each dark looks before his eyes darted over to one of the cops walking the room, notebook in hand. “And the police? What did you tell them?”

My face grew warm. I knew full well the agency could be in a lot of trouble if anyone questioned my no-no.

“Relax, big brother,” Camille said. “Probablement the police think I was with Lora.”

This was news to me.

“Probably?” Laurent said.

Oui, oui. I told officer Tessier that I did not see anything from my position, only Lora had a view. I did not tell him my position was nowhere near the cake.”

All three of us looked over at the fake cake, smashed in on one side. Hard to imagine anyone would believe three grown women could fit into the cake. But then Tessier was a man. Maybe he liked to think three women crammed into a cake was sexy.

I glanced over at young officer Tessier, the cop Camille had chatted up earlier. He oozed newbie from the tip of his buzzed red hair to his regulation uniform to his polished boots. It was just possible he was rookie enough not to pick up on Camille’s avoidance technique. And more importantly, not connected enough yet to be wise to her reputation for manipulating rules and men. And not necessarily in that order.

Laurent let out a slow breath and turned to me. “And what did you see?”

I told him everything. Just like I’d told Camille. And before her, the manager of the club that rented the meeting room to Johnny’s friends for his bachelor/poker party.

Et puis?” Laurent asked when I was done. “Where did everyone go?”

“I don’t know. Everyone but Johnny was gone when I stopped spinning.”

Camille and Laurent exchanged one of their quasi telepathic sibling looks then gazed back at me.

“How long before someone from the club came in?” Camille said.

“By the time I pried the cake lid open, two staff guys were in the room. Louis and Manuel. At least those were the names on their nametags. Manuel was the one who helped me climb down from the cake.”

Laurent’s eyes rose from mine and scanned the room.

“He’s there,” I said trying to gesture without pointing. “That ripped guy in the corner with the Buddy Holly glasses.” I motioned again, over near the doorway this time. “And that’s Louis. The older guy with the earring.”

Camille turned to get a good look. “Ah, oui. I’ll take Manuel,” she said, already walking off in his direction leaving Laurent and me alone.

“Aren’t you going to talk to Louis?” I asked Laurent.

He stood quiet a minute. “Later.” He tugged at my sleeve, gently navigating both of us out of the room and a ways down the hallway, stopping near a planter filled with a tall leafy tree. The hall had minimal pot lights, no windows, and smelled of carpet deodorizer and beer. I was guessing the tree was fake. The leaves looked too good for a real plant living in these conditions.

“Tell me more about when the men came in and took the poker money,” Laurent said.

I told him again, trying not to leave out any detail. Laurent was big on making me recount things over and over until I remembered more details, so I tried to do my remembering quickly.

“What did the men look like?”

“Nothing special. Two big goons, boss with a Napoleon complex, face like the Penguin from Batman.” The guy sounded like the Penguin too now that I thought about it. If the Penguin had a French accent.

Laurent’s mouth showed a brief hint of a smile. “Movie Penguin or TV Penguin?”

“TV.”

“Anything special about him? Tattoos? Scars?”

I shrugged. “Nope. I couldn’t see much detail from inside the cake.”

“And after you got out, anything else you remember?”

“I don’t think so. After Manuel lifted me down, my focus was on Johnny.”

Laurent’s eyes went dark then glinted. “Lifted you down?” he said, looking back to the rip in my jeans. “Were you hurt?”

I straightened my posture. Camille and Laurent were big on the protective thing and I was big on the independent thing. “I’m fine.” I said, working to keep an edge out of my voice. “Probably Manuel was confused and concerned to find the room such a mess and he was just trying to be helpful.”

Laurent’s eyes lingered on my face then trailed away above my head and went dark again.

I turned to see a cop coming towards us—dark curly hair cut short, body like a battery, clothes ironed stiff. Samuel Brassard, a fellow trainee Laurent met back in his days at the police academy. And an even bigger stickler for rules. They weren’t friends exactly, more boot camp bondees who occasionally ran into each other when our investigations and police matters intermingled. Mostly, Brassard worked homicides, though, not brawls.

He gave Laurent a chin nod. “Heille, Caron. Don’t keep our only witness to yourself.” Brassard shifted his look to me with that last bit, his French accent stretching out the two syllables of “only” like they were two words: “own-lee” and hitting them softer than the rest of his sentence. Probably he wasn’t buying the three ladies to a cake idea. I wasn’t surprised. Mister big-time stickler didn’t have far to go to become mister big-time suspicious.

Laurent placed his hand on my shoulder and I felt my stomach flip. Somehow I had to convince Brassard I wasn’t the only witness, just the only one inside the cake with a view. And I had to do a good job or mister suspicious stickler could become mister tattler, and Johnny wouldn’t be the only one of the evening who played the odds and lost big.

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