Cry Uncle(9)

By: Judith Arnold

The sound of her voice cut through his half-baked fantasies. “The police didn’t seem to think I was in any real danger. I told them I had received a couple of strange phone calls, and I’d been followed home from work a few times. I don’t know—maybe they were right. Maybe he was only trying to intimidate me. But when you look in your rear-view mirror and discover that the car behind you is being driven by the man you witnessed shooting someone in cold blood, you tend to get a little nervous.”

“It sure wouldn’t sit well with me,” he agreed.

“The police told me I was worrying about nothing. They said they had an officer assigned to keep a constant watch on the hit man, and I was perfectly safe.”

“And that’s not good enough for you?”

She sighed, then shook her head. “Maybe they’re right, maybe I am worrying about nothing. But...I don’t know. I tried hiring a private bodyguard, but frankly, I couldn’t stand having him lurking in my shadows all the time. It made me even more paranoid. It’s bad enough being followed around by one person. I couldn’t stand being followed around by two. So I decided to leave town until a new trial was scheduled and he was in custody.”

If the police thought she was safe, how much danger could she possibly be in? Maybe she was a touch paranoid, but he could tolerate her minor neuroses as long as they didn’t interfere with the big picture—keeping Lizard.

So Pamela Hayes was a little bit nutty. She would fit right in in Key West. “So,” he said, feeling a lot less concerned about her story. “Your parents have no idea where you are?”

“For their safety as well as mine, we thought that would be best for the time being.”

“Then I guess we won’t invite them to the wedding,” Joe joked, although merely saying it made him realize that he’d pretty much made up his mind. He needed a wife, and Pamela more or less fit the bill. “Anything else I need to know?” he asked. “Any loan sharks holding your markers? Any pre-existing health conditions?”

He watched her hands flutter. Like her shoulders, they were delicate, her fingers slim and graceful, her knuckles smooth enough to pose for hand-lotion ads. The gold bangle bobbed against her wrist, drawing his attention to yet another intriguingly protruding bone. He, always a breasts-and-butt man, had never before noticed how alluring a woman’s skeletal structure could be.

“Look, Joe,” she said. “I didn’t know about your niece. Seriously—we can’t mix a little girl up in this. I don’t even know why I came here....”

“You came to avoid a hit man,” he reminded her.

“No—I mean, why I came to your bar to talk to you. Your waitress, Kitty—she seemed so friendly in the laundry room this morning. I don’t know anyone in Key West, and she was so nice, and she kept telling me what a great guy you were, how I really ought to meet you, how I was exactly what you were looking for....” A sad laugh escaped Pamela, and she shook her head.

“I take it you didn’t mention to Kitty that you had a goon from Seattle on your tail.”

“He’s not on my tail,” she insisted, though she didn’t look totally convinced. “I don’t think he has any idea where I am at the moment. And Kitty told me she thought you and I could help each other out, and...” Pamela sighed. “My mind just isn’t working the way it used to. I used to be so rational. Just yesterday, I would have found the idea of marrying a stranger preposterous.”

“Now wait a minute,” Joe objected. For no good reason, he felt his ego was under attack. “Preposterous? You think marrying me is preposterous?”

“No,” she hastened to assure him. “I think you’d make a fine husband. It’s me. I’d make a lousy wife.”

He ought to accept her at her word. He had Lizard’s safety to think of, and marrying a woman with a contract on her head was asking for trouble. But Joe was used to asking for trouble—and acing the answer. And Pamela’s linking him, marriage, and preposterous together made him argumentative. “I’ll have you know, there are a lot of women who’d jump at the chance to marry me.”

“And they don’t have contracts out on them,” she pointed out. “For your niece’s sake, you really ought to marry one of them.”

Joe contemplated the women who’d jump—and for Lizard’s sake, none of them would do. They were flashy, or irresponsible, or pleasantly lax when it came to morality. They were too similar to what Joe had been like before he had Lizard.

Pamela wasn’t flashy. She obviously wasn’t irresponsible. If she had the courage and integrity to testify against a murderer in a public court trial, her morals had to be damned near unimpeachable. She was exactly what he needed for his niece’s sake. “Why do you think you’d make a lousy wife?” he asked.

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