Scandal never sleeps, p.31
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       Scandal Never Sleeps, p.31

         Part #1 of The Perfect Gentlemen series by Shayla Black
 

  Industries might make him more money, and he just didn’t care. But Everly had a passion for this place. He couldn’t coax or force her to go to Bond Aeronautics with him, no matter how much he wanted to. She belonged here.

  “This is Bond.”

  “Someone from security is here to talk to you. He says he has information about security tapes.”

  Shit. “Send him in.”

  Dax’s eyes widened. “What’s going on?”

  “Someone broke into Everly’s office since she was here last. She asked the security guys to roll the footage to try to figure out who could have done it. Apparently, they found something.” He crossed the room and opened the door.

  An older gentleman dressed in his Crawford Industries blue uniform stepped inside. He held a laptop and wore a frown as he nodded Gabe’s way. “Mr. Bond, I thought you would want to see this.”

  Gabe sent the older man a grave nod. “Did you find footage of someone entering her office?”

  “I definitely did. The door was locked, but apparently the woman had a keycard. Now, on the janitorial staff, the floor workers have cards that open almost every door, but they only clean the locked offices twice a week. This wasn’t Ms. Parker’s night, and the head janitor is a man.”

  “What woman?”

  The guard lifted the lid to the laptop and hit a key to start the video feed. The footage was black and white but showed the hallway outside Everly’s office clearly. The janitor, a short man wearing earbuds, moved in front of the lens, sweeping his vacuum across the beige industrial carpet. He danced a little while he worked.

  And then Gabe saw her. She’d tucked her hair up in a ball cap and she wore a blue janitorial jumper, though it hung off her thin frame. She started to look around, clearly nervous, but whipped her stare down, as though she knew exactly when and where the hall cameras would be aimed. But then any halfway decent burglar would know that.

  “Who is she?” Dax asked.

  He had a hunch, but it was hard to be completely certain. There were plenty of skinny, tall women working for Crawford. It was New York City, after all. The police would argue it could be any of them. Gabe leaned in, trying to discern anything definitive.

  Then she lifted her hand to Everly’s doorknob and revealed something no real janitor would wear on the job: a delicate white watch. Chanel, if he wasn’t mistaken. Sure, it could be a knockoff, but why would anyone who immersed their hands in cleaning solution routinely as part of their job description wear jewelry that wasn’t waterproof? He’d noticed that same watch earlier when she’d done her best to stare Everly down.

  Now he had some proof that Valerie was up to no good. Forcing her way into Everly’s office was a form of B&E. Gabe didn’t need more proof than this.

  “That’s Valerie from accounting and she’s fired. Let’s escort her to the lobby now. Make sure she takes nothing with her except her personal belongings. Then we’ll hand her over to the police.” They could hold her until he could scrape together the rest of the proof necessary to make embezzlement charges stick.

  “Yes, sir.” The guard nodded.

  Gabe felt better being able to get rid of the woman. Something about her screamed crazy bitch to him. He’d met enough to know. Some women talked a good game, while others would happily cut their enemies. Gabe bet that Valerie fit into the latter category, and he wanted her as far from Everly as possible. His girl might know how to defend herself, but he didn’t want her to have to. “Dax, could you come with us, in case—”

  “She goes pyscho on your ass? Yeah.” Dax was right behind him.

  Gabe took off. He didn’t give a damn if everyone stared and wondered if their new CEO had gone insane. He only cared about ensuring Everly’s safety.

  As he reached Valerie’s office, dread spread through his chest. He had no specific reason to think she’d already acted or harmed Everly—except a terrible gut feeling. With his heart chugging, Gabe threw open the woman’s office door. Empty. Gone.

  He turned to Valerie’s assistant. “Where is she?”

  The woman clearly heard the urgency in his voice. She immediately turned, flustered, and stammered. “I-I . . . well, she, um . . . Ms. Richards is gone for the afternoon.”

  Gabe had a bad feeling he knew what Valerie’s plans were.

  He turned to the security officer. “Find Valerie. Now.”

  FOURTEEN

  Everly scanned the empty level of the parking garage, then glanced nervously at her phone. Ten minutes past three. It felt as if she’d been waiting forever. Her nerves stretched tight.

  Maybe the secret e-mail and texts she’d received had been a terrible joke. Maybe whoever sent them was a prankster. Or a sick individual.

  Three levels belowground, each sound was magnified as it echoed off the concrete. Every squeal of tires or sudden slam of the brakes from above as cars navigated the structure amplified underground. The tense moments buzzed with anxious anticipation.

  So when Everly heard the echo of footsteps against the cement behind her coming down the ramp toward her, she nearly jumped out of her skin.

  She reached into her purse to reassure herself her firearm still lay inside, then stepped away from the bank of elevators that had brought her down. She searched for the source of the footsteps. Her mysterious contact obviously liked drama and wanted to keep her on edge, so he’d walked down the parking garage to reach her. Regardless, he seemed determined to make an entrance.

  If this man turned out to be a reporter, she would take out her frustrations on him and give him the tongue lashing of his life. If he was for real . . . Everly didn’t know what she’d do.

  When she caught sight of the man, she had zero doubt he was the one who’d contacted her so mysteriously. He walked toward her, his polished wingtips clicking smartly. His face was barely visible under the brim of a fedora. Despite the unseasonably warm day, he wore a trench coat with the collar upturned to better hide his face.

  Though his film noir getup made her stop just short of rolling her eyes, Everly remained on guard. Yes, he stood roughly half a foot taller, but she couldn’t take him seriously when he was dressed so Hollywood for the part.

  Though she had a hard time seeing his face, especially given the dim lights overhead, she pegged his age at roughly fifty. The guy looked surprisingly fit, so he’d probably hold his own in hand-to-hand. He could be carrying, but then so was she. Given the lack of a telltale bulge in his coat pocket, she’d draw her weapon far faster than him since he had to get through the voluminous trench to a shoulder holster.

  His gaze was steady as he closed the distance between them, but he remained mute until he stepped onto the concrete pad near the elevators, just beyond the security cameras. “Miss Parker, it’s good to see you can follow instructions.”

  So he was impressed by her ability to read? Fabulous. “Why am I here?”

  He raised a brow. “No small talk, then?”

  She didn’t have time. Gabriel would come for her before long, and she would rather not have to explain this meeting to him. “I prefer getting to the point.”

  He nodded. “I was pleased you made it out of Crawford’s brownstone alive last night.”

  “So was I. And your point is?”

  He acknowledged her impatience with a sly grin. “If you haven’t already, I believe you’ll discover the man killed at the site was hired muscle for the Russian mob, someone they used when they didn’t want close ties to a crime.”

  “We’ve already figured that out.” The man’s knowledge didn’t prove anything except that he’d read online news sites or gotten ahold of the police reports. Anyone who understood the way the Russians work would be suspicious of a criminal from Brighton Beach. “The police are looking for the second man. He got away.”

  The informant gave her a regretful frown. “They’ll have to work fast or they won’t find Mr. Hall alive.”

  “Mr. Hall?” As far as she knew, the police hadn’t identified the second assailant yet.
They had captured some grainy footage of him on a CCTV as he’d fled, but they hadn’t yet put a face with a name.

  “If my information is correct, you’ll soon learn that the second man involved in the crime is Lester Hall.”

  She froze. The assailant who’d perished in the fire had called his accomplice Les. How could this man possibly know that?

  “He’s a known associate of the Bratva and a childhood friend of Jason Miller,” her informant went on. “I’m sure he thought he could go into hiding, but I firmly believe the men who hired him would much prefer that he never have the opportunity to speak of the incident. They likely hired both men to torch Crawford’s house and planned to kill them afterward. Those Russians know how to keep secrets. In a few days, Hall’s body will surface, and the police will likely chalk up your near-death experience to an isolated case of arson and close the file.”

  Everly didn’t like what she was hearing. “Why would two men without ties to Maddox randomly torch his brownstone?”

  She didn’t mention that she and Gabriel had seen the thugs looking for something—whether to swipe or destroy it, she didn’t know. She wasn’t here to give her informant information.

  The man shrugged. “It won’t matter to the police. They’re petty criminals. No one will mourn them. They’re easy to mentally convict and forget.”

  She recoiled. “That’s harsh.”

  “But true. Miller and Hall brought no value to society, and the man whose house is in ashes is dead now, so there’s no true victim. As long as the police and public can assign blame and say the crime has been solved . . .” He shrugged. “Almost everyone will be happy.”

  “But not all?” Everly asked. She hadn’t quite decided if he was a total crackpot. Maybe. Probably. But what if he really did know the identity of the second arsonist? What else might he know?

  “Well, you shouldn’t be happy. In the next few hours, the authorities will close the case on Maddox Crawford’s death, too. They’ll either rule that it wasn’t a homicide after all or name a patsy. Either way, they will close every avenue of investigation and sweep it all under the rug.”

  The man sounded like a conspiracy theorist . . . but did that necessarily make him crazy? “Why? He was murdered, right?”

  “Of course,” he shot back as if it was obvious. “He knew too much and he couldn’t be allowed to live.”

  “Knew too much about what?” When the man hesitated, Everly glared at him. “Your e-mail and texts indicate you have all the answers. If that’s true, tell me what Maddox died for.”

  He bent his head and looked at her from under his brim as he spoke. She couldn’t see his face, but his low growl was unmistakable. “Good. You are smart, wanting to get to the heart of the matter. Everything else is background noise and distraction. Did pilot’s error kill him? Or was it a bomb on the plane? And what about the sudden appearance of that video showing Bond’s threat to kill Crawford? It makes your boyfriend look awfully guilty and will keep the public speculating. But all that merely scratches the surface of what’s really going on. You’re digging, but you’ve barely clawed a fingernail into the glossy coating yourself.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “You’re starting to get information, but the clues seem unrelated, like they don’t quite fit together, right? Don’t give up. The evidence gives false impressions when laid out in pieces as simple, individual truths. When you put everything together and look deeper, you’ll see.”

  She really wanted to write this man off as a loon. But even if everything he’d said so far had been outlandish, she had a gut feeling he might be on to something. “Stop speaking in riddles and tell me what the hell is going on.”

  “I don’t have tangible proof. You’ll have to find that for yourself. But believe me, if I laid the whole truth out, you’d call me a liar. Or you would panic.”

  “I’m not a damsel in distress.”

  “You’re not,” he agreed smoothly. “But these are huge stakes. Almost unimaginable. You may not believe me about that, either, but try. Your life might depend on it.”

  Everly wished she could call bullshit on that, but after Mad’s murder and the intentional fire at his house, she didn’t have trouble believing it.

  “Do your own investigation,” he went on. “If you uncover the layers as I have and keep asking questions—even if they seem crazy—you’ll figure it out.”

  Why would the stakes in her half brother’s murder be so ridiculously high? And how was she supposed to know the right questions to ask?

  Everly frowned. “I don’t understand any of this. I know why a jealous husband or a scorned lover might have wanted to kill Maddox, but they would probably have wanted the satisfaction of killing him with their own hands, not rigging his plane to go down.”

  “Think bigger, Ms. Parker.” He scoffed. “Much bigger. Who benefitted most from his demise?”

  “If you’re suggesting that Gabriel Bond killed him to inherit—”

  “I’m not. This is bigger than simple greed.” He glared at her. “Who has the power to cover up a murder like Crawford’s? Research that and think really outside the box about why. I won’t say more now. It’s too much to lay on you at once without documentation. But I won’t leave you without resources. You can trust one person.”

  This dramatic speech hadn’t made much sense, but Everly finally got a glimmer of where this was heading.

  “You?” She raised a cynical brow at him.

  He laughed, a deep chuckle. “Oh, heavens no. I wouldn’t trust me at all. No, I’m talking about Lara Armstrong. She’s in DC. Find her. Compare notes. She’s tugging on a few threads, but she hasn’t figured out which ones to yank yet. When she does, she’ll be in danger because no one wants this information revealed, as our friend Mr. Crawford discovered the hard way.”

  Frustration bubbled up. Why couldn’t he simply tell her what he knew? “I don’t have time to investigate, and it’s not exactly my skill set. Just tell me who killed my brother.”

  Even as he shook his head, his grin grew wider. “I was surprised you discovered that information so quickly. Tell me, did it make Mr. Bond feel better to know he hadn’t slept with his best friend’s mistress?” He sobered. “He might not be guilty of murder, but whatever you do, don’t trust Gabe Bond.”

  Everly suspected she shouldn’t. She would always wonder what would have happened if he hadn’t learned about her true relationship to Maddox. Would he have ever believed that she hadn’t warmed Maddox’s bed? Or would he have decided that he couldn’t handle his friend’s leftovers and dumped her? Despite all that, she didn’t like this stranger talking badly about Gabriel.

  “I don’t think my relationships are any of your business.”

  “If your relationships get in the way of the truth, they are.”

  Who the hell did he think he was? “You called me here to give me information—”

  “No, I called you here to give you direction. So far, you’re not taking it well.”

  He was talking in circles and it was irritating the hell out of her. “Say what you came to say and be done. At this point, I’m ready to write you off as a meddling conspiracy nut.”

  “Ah, finally the feisty girl comes out. So you don’t like me badmouthing Gabe Bond, do you? You’re in deep with him.”

  “Again, that’s none of your business.” Once they figured out who killed Maddox, she and Gabriel would only see each other occasionally, for the sake of Sara’s baby. She could resume her work and her thriller-novel-a-week habit. He could go back to his former life as a Manhattan manwhore.

  Why did that thought hurt so much?

  “I don’t object to Gabe in general. He’s simply involved with people who need to bury this information so deep, it never sees the light of day. Several factions are competing to come out on top, and some don’t even realize other teams exist. Once they do and you start putting the pieces together, you’ll be in danger. Trust me, this picture is only starting to come i
nto focus. What you know is one corner of a much larger puzzle.”

  “Does this have anything to do with the missing money?”

  He frowned. “Missing money?”

  So her mystery informant didn’t know everything. Maybe he didn’t really know anything. Everly shook her head. This guy was probably a nut job after all.

  “All right, what’s the scam? Do you work for Lara Armstrong, whoever she is? You know what? It doesn’t matter. I’m done listening.” She turned to leave.

  “Wait. I’ll prove my knowledge to you. Tell me, did you find the pictures of the missing girls in the lockbox in the hidden room?”

  She froze. Not even the cops knew about the lockbox. She and
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