By Amy Eastlake
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This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any person real or imagined, is coincidental. Private Lies. Copyright 2000 by Robert Preece. All rights reserved. You may print out a single copy of this novel without payment. You may not transfer this novel in paper, electronic, or other format, to anyone.
The minute he walked in the door, Heather Webb fell in love.
His suit fit him so perfectly that it had to be custom tailored. The white shirt still sparkled with newness, and small gold coins that Heather recognized as bearing the portrait of Maximilian of Mexico graced the cuff-links.
Even his shoes spoke of wealth.
If a man this obviously rich had to come to a run-down private detective agency without even calling ahead for an appointment, he was desperate--and she wouldn't let him walk out of here without a fight. A client like this could finance the agency for a month.
She slurped a swallow from her coffee mug then waved the mug toward a chair somehow managing not to send coffee everywhere. "Won't you sit down?"
He straddled the chair. "Are you the boss?"
The visitor's distrustful blue eyes personified danger and control. That didn't surprise her. In her experience, people didn't get rich without stepping on some toes.
His voice was deep and sexy, but in a carefully manipulated way, as if he had taken voice lessons to develop just that rasp of sensuality. He certainly didn't fit the normal government-worker model that most of Washington D.C.'s privileged copied in their efforts not to seem too elite.
"I'm Heather Webb."
He ignored her implicit invitation to introduce himself. "I understand you do computer break-ins."
She didn't want to scare him off, but suddenly he seemed just a little too perfect. "I run a general purpose private detective agency," Heather explained. "One of our services is computer security audits."
She'd put the ball back in his court and let him define himself through his words and actions. One of the best things about her job was that it gave her an excuse to be nosy.
"I'm looking for someone who can find out whether the computers at a company I'm interested in are secure."
She sighed. "We don't do third party work." In her circumstances she couldn't afford to take the risk, no matter how much money he might offer.
She should have known that having Mr. Rich Guy walk into her office was too good to be true. Especially a rich guy who looked like he'd be cool and collected in the middle of the Sahara desert. Despite Washington D.C.'s brutal August humidity, Mr. Rich-guy appeared completely comfortable in his wool suit and perfectly knotted silk tie.
The man looked at her curiously.
"I'm Jack Eastland," he told her.
"Ah. Jack Eastland," she answered as if everything were suddenly clear. She didn't exactly hang around in D.C.'s high society, but you can't live in Washington without picking up some sense of who is doing what. His name meant exactly nothing to her.
His eyes widened slightly and she had the feeling that he had just run her through a cat scan and investigated every secret cranny of her being. The sensation was a little frightening, but it wasn't altogether unpleasant.
He was built better than most businessmen she had known. In fact, he probably had to have his suits custom made, since his broad shoulders would burst through anything he could buy off the rack. He was a little old to be a professional athlete, probably somewhere in his mid-thirties, but he moved with a grace that spoke of power and economy of motion.
He cleared his throat. "What makes you think I'm asking for a third-party search."
"There must be some sort of convention going on," she told him. "Five minutes before you arrived, someone called asking for me to break into a major computer center. Yesterday I got three calls. Everyone must want to find out what their competitors are doing. I don't blame them, but I can't help them. I don't do that kind of work."
"Aren't you walking away from a lot of business?"
She shook her head ruefully. "It's not worth losing my license over." More to the point, she couldn't afford to get her parents messed up in an investigation. Of course she wouldn't tell Mr. Eastland, or whatever his real name was, that.
"Well, Heather ..." he paused, "May I call you Heather?"
She smiled. "Of course." He could call her Fido if he wanted, as long as he paid his bills.
"Fine," he told her. "I'll get to the point. I've recently picked up a company. Since then, my competitors have been eating me alive. Before I go on a rampage and make accusations about an inside job, I want to make sure that my competition isn't stealing my secrets off my own computer. What you said about what's going on out there makes me even more certain that I need to look into this. Somehow I'm not convinced everyone shares your morals."
He reached into his suit pocket.
Heather fought her instinctive urge to reach for the automatic in her desk. Instead she set a false smile on her face. When his hand emerged with a gold business card box, she let out her breath in a whoosh.
The card was printed on stiff linen stock paper that felt like money, only thicker. Jack Eastland, CEO, Wildfire Enterprises, the card read.
Everything appeared too easy. In her experience, companies the size of Wildfire, one of D.C.'s biggest private companies, didn't send their CEOs out to hire detectives. Still, why shouldn't things be easy for once?
All summer, business had been so bad she'd stooped to serving summonses for a couple of the law firms she worked with. A major computer security audit deal could be the break that made her company. Her parents' work in computer security was pretty well known in hacker circles, but a high-publicity job would give her the chance to expand the agency.
"You understand I'll have to check on this?" she asked him.
Jack Eastland looked like he could be a CEO, or anything else he put his mind to. Then again, she'd met con men who could assume the same air of power and arrogance.
"Of course," he said smoothly. "I hope you understand that I am in something of a hurry."
A year and a half in business for herself had trained Heather to go for the jugular. "I'll put together a complete proposal. In addition to the computer audit, I recommend that you hire my agency to handle on-site surveillance. I can practically guarantee that you'll have holes in your computer security. That doesn't mean that's where your leaks are coming from."
"I'm only interested in the computers," he answered.
His quick rejection of her suggestion piqued her curiosity. Clearly money wasn't the issue. In her wildest dreams, she wouldn't charge enough to make a company of Wildfire's size notice. So why was he dead set on ignoring her advice?
"It's your money," she told him. "You want me to do only half the job, I'll do half the job."
"Fine." Eastland gave her a smile that showed a row of perfect teeth set against a deeply tanned face.
She almost choked at his smile. No man had a right to look that good. Maybe he really was an actor. She'd certainly stand in line to watch him.
Abruptly he ended his smile and nodded.
Heather felt like she'd had the wind knocked out of her. That wonderful, warm, confiding, smile had been a fraud, an act. If he wasn't an actor, he should be. And not just because he was pretty to look at.
He stood and looked to the door. "When can I expect the report?"
"I have no idea."
That got his attention. His eyes snapped back to her. "Exactly what is that supposed to mean?"
"I already told you, I've got to check you out. Once I do, I'll put together a proposal. I'll estimate how much time and how much money the job is likely to cost."
"Let me rephrase my question, then. When can I expect the proposal?"
Heather picked up her desk calendar and examined it closely.
As she'd suspected, her August schedule remained distressingly similar to September and July--nearly blank. "Why don't you come by tomorrow afternoon. I'll be able to give you an estimate then."
Eastland pulled a thin book from his suit jacket pocket and examined it closely. "I can get free between two and two-thirty."
"That should be plenty of time."
He nodded curtly. "I'll see you then."
Heather stood and held out her hand. A handshake wasn't a legal tie, but it tended to put people on more personal terms. The last thing she needed was for him to take his business elsewhere, especially since she was going to the trouble of putting together a proposal. Customers didn't seem to understand that a proposal is half the job.
Jack's hand swallowed hers.
At his touch, a tiny thrill went through her body, almost like static electricity, except it couldn't have been that since she felt certain Jack Eastland would never allow human things like static electricity into his life.
He tightened his grip enough to let her feel his controlled power, then released.
"If I have any questions--" she started.
"You have my card. I'll instruct my secretary to page me, no questions asked."
"That should do it. See you at two."
Heather watched as he turned and strode toward the door.
Something about him didn't quite fit. Sure, rich businessmen were dangerous. But Jack Eastland looked dangerous in a more active way than any simple executive should. He looked more like a man who'd take an enemy and break him in half than he did a capitalist out to exploit workers and customers.
Although he stood over six feet tall, Jack didn't move awkwardly. In fact, he somehow managed to step without a sound on the squeaky step she'd spent so much time installing outside her office.
She revised her initial thoughts about the man. He might be bringing in some valuable business, but she wondered what his business would end up costing her.