Nobody liked a good old-fashioned, downright sordid scandal more than Byron and Tilda van Huffmeyer. Unadulterated gossip ran through their veins much like the ornate and severely overstated gold trim did around the rooms of their "modest" abode they opened on social occasions, i.e., dinner parties. After all, what better place to hear it out of the mouths of those who enjoyed spreading it than in the comfort and secret monitoring of one's own home? This wasn't just any gossip, either. Oh, no.
Nobody really cared who the rich and famous were banging, cheating on, cheating out of or otherwise screwing over anymore. The real focus was on all the up-and-coming wannabe hopefuls just under the radar who aspired to one day receive an invitation to such a gathering as the van Huffmeyer's. They--the non-elite, the talentless ones desperately clawing their way to the top, were the prey. They were the ones now trying to bang the tabloid faces of the elite world.
Every gory detail, every dried stain of a questionable nature, every false promise made in the heat of an orgasm and every visit to a Beverly Hills physician who specialized in family planning--or, more accurately, family prevention--was carefully scrutinized to the nth degree. The real irony, though, the real Grand Poobah of them all, was that the van Huffmeyers were as credible as a certain senator's account of what he was really doing in that airport restroom the day he was arrested.
A $17.2-million mansion, purchased by a couple who didn't exist working for a company that couldn't be located and living on an income from a source unable to be traced never attracted too much attention from the neighbors, but somebody was bound to notice and somebody did. The van Huffmeyers apparently didn't figure that into the equation,.
Which left Nicholas Inker wondering if the husband-and-wife team were just that confident, which meant they had a back-up plan, or just that stupid, which meant they didn't. Whatever the case, they would have security measures to keep their secrets safe.
The door to the study containing Byron van Huffmeyer's private desk was already unlocked by the time Nicholas reached it, just as it should be. Unlocking a door wasn't any great feat, and it certainly wasn't the crowning achievement of the evening. No, that would be something else entirely. He took one glance in either direction to make sure the coast was clear, then guided the oversize poodle into the room and closed the door behind him.
"Was anybody suspicious?" a voice from the dark asked with just a hint of impatience.
"Not at all," Nicholas admitted, "so I flailed my arms around, snapped at people without provocation and acted like the biggest drama queen I could think of. Imagine the irony when your understanding, ever-tranquil mother came to mind." He reached over and turned on a small lamp as the dog sat down beside him.
"Is that for saying I don't want to pick up sushi on the way home tonight?" Anthony Hamilton stepped into the light, and the two thirty-somethings faced each other. "Or for mentioning earlier that your stubborn, annoying, whiny pissed-off side who hangs up on me when you don't like what I'm saying is reminiscent of that sweet, wholesome, ever-so angelically patient mother of yours?"
"I didn't say we had to have sushi tonight," Nicholas argued. "I just don't want clam chowder again. It gives me gas."
"Sushi." He was still curious, though. "All I wanted to know--before the flailing started--is how you knew what we're looking for would be in here. Isn't this a bit too obvious? I mean, everybody leaves what they don't want to be found in the study. It's usually the solution in the FBI version of Clue--Mr. van Huffmeyer in the study with the incriminating evidence. I'd have started in the basement."
"I know you enjoy these little forays outside the office with me..." Anthony didn't bother hiding his patronizing tone. "...but since you're not field-certified, maybe you should simply listen instead of questioning me. I can keep you safe so you can go back and make up all sorts of exaggerated stories for your little friends at the Agency's training complex."
"And here I thought we were equals since you aren't field-certified, either." He crossed his arms. "You upgrade computers, load software and pretend to understand why the network goes down when we all know it's because the directors stream music in their offices." Silence. "So ... no explanation?" Nicholas pressed goodnaturedly.
"Okay. Let me make this simple for you." Anthony's patience was wearing thin. "You never let rich guests like these anywhere near where you don't want them to be because they feel entitled to snoop. For instance, I saw the Rothschilds heading downstairs to pick out a bottle of wine. Do you really think they aren't going to take the opportunity to poke around?"
"Unless the van Huffmeyers wanted to hide it in plain sight," Nicholas offered.
"This is why I'm the brains and you just stand there and look pretty." Anthony glared. "Use your eyes. The three rooms of the house that are least accessible to a potential raid or burglary are the main bedroom, adjoining bathroom and this study. Of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the heavily reinforced fire door that separates this area of the house from the rest."
"I see." Nicholas watched him circle the desk. "So, aside from vague intelligence reports, your entire prep work for this consisted of examining blueprints?"
"That's right. Why?"
"Because you're about to pull that chair out from behind the desk."
"And?" Anthony put his hand on the aforementioned chair.
"I wouldn't do that," Nicholas warned.
"Why not?" He froze.
"It's booby-trapped." Nicholas crossed his arms. "That wouldn't be in the prints."
"Alright." Anthony humored him and took a step back from the desk. "Why do you think it's booby-trapped?"
"Because there's always a booby-trap." Hadn't his partner learned a thing from all those B-movies they watched? "That, and I'm using my eyes."
Anthony winced as the phrase was lobbed back at him.
"These people are a little like you when you're off the job--sloppy. This is an expensive hardwood floor, yet there's no padding, carpet or anything else under the desk to stop it from making indentations that'd require extensive and costly refinish work. Now, if you look at where the chair is, I'll bet there aren't any roller grooves. But if you look in front of the desk, what do you see?"
"What are...?" Anthony used a Mini Maglite to examine the area by the chair. "No grooves, just like you said." He circled around to the front. "There's some wear-and-tear here, though."
"Exactly. Which means somebody has been spending a great deal of time on their back--nice for them, I might add, since I haven't, as of late and through no fault of my own--but doing what?"
"Doing something underneath the desk," Anthony admitted through clenched teeth.
"So, the question becomes 'What's underneath it?'" Nicholas hated to admit it, but he secretly enjoyed showing his partner up. No, come to think of it, he liked to admit it.
"Do you mind telling me why you felt the need to interject that rather obvious little jab at our sex life when..." Anthony stopped. "Hello? I'm talking to you. What are you doing?"
"I'm petting Precious." Nicholas looked up from the dog with the most innocent expression he could fake. "Sorry. It sounded like you were going to blah-blah-blah for a while."
"Why do I bother?" Anthony seethed. "Well, according to you, I haven't been bothering." Now he was simply exasperated. "And how many times have I told you it's a bad idea to be overly friendly with the canine crew?"
"The same number of times I've asked you for a legitimate reason how petting a dog can be construed as being 'overly friendly.' Besides, Precious is a good girl, isn't she?" Nicholas rubbed behind her ears. "She led me right to you."
"A dog knows its master." Anthony lay down on his back and, after grabbing another flashlight out of his little black bag, shimmied under the desk and carefully examined its underside. "You could learn from her."
"And here I thought she was trained to sniff out the biggest ass." Nicholas knew he wouldn't get a reaction to the comment right away, but it was coming. "What do you see?"
"Here's a shocking headline--you're right," Anthony purposely sounded surprised, which he knew would annoy Nicholas. "In addition to an overwhelming lack of cleanliness down here, there's a series of filaments coming from the desk that are tied to three different parts of the chair."
"What are they attached to on the desk?" It sounded like something more elaborate than they had been told to expect. So much for intelligent intelligence.
"A couple of wires, some kind of mechanism I can't completely see and something that looks like Silly Putty." Anthony tried to be as descriptive as he could, especially since none of it was supposed to be there in the first place.
"Yes, Silly Putty, that thing you turn into when I try to get a straight answer out of you regarding something you've bought."
"How much?" Nicholas had a sneaky suspicion what it was.
"Any amount!" Anthony snapped. "You never want to tell me how much you paid for anything because you think I'm going to lecture you, which is probably true, but it beats getting me pissed off when you evade the subject."
"I mean, my little fire-breathing basket of black widows, how much Silly Putty?"
"Oh." There was a brief hesitation. "A small brick. I can pull some of it off--"
"I really wouldn't touch that," Nicholas warned.
"Stay where you are." Nicholas knelt on the floor and positioned himself between Anthony's legs, face down to his partner's face up. "I'm going to crawl under here with you and use a mirror."
"Please tell me this isn't some sick little perverted way to get me into this position." Because sarcasm never deflated a romantic moment, when they actually had one.
"Oh, no. If I were going to do that, your mother would have to be standing just outside the door, which you'd leave open so she could feel comfortable being able to check up on us and make sure we aren't doing anything. You know, kind of like the last month of our lives while she was visiting again?" He pulled himself up to where Anthony was waiting, then used a small compact mirror. "That's not Silly Putty."
"What is it?"
"Why in the hell would somebody have C-Four under their desk?" Anthony stared at him. "And exactly how is it that somebody whose job it is to take people through a repetition of sit-ups and time how fast they run a mile and a half knows what C-Four is?"
"I took a couple of the classes the Agency offered ... and I watched Alias." It sort-of sounded convincing. "You don't see me questioning how a simple IT guy who denies people internet access to get his jollies managed to deactivate an entire security system, make his way upstairs and pick a lock in under ten minutes, do you?" Actually, Nicholas did wonder how that was possible. "And to answer your question, because it's the most obvious place for a trap. So, please, keep raising your voice like that. Need I remind you how close you are to becoming a Canton-kabob?"
"A Canton-kabob?" Anthony glared at him.
"I heard it from Albert, that rice queen you work with. Moh choh."
"No, you shut up! I hate when you try to speak Cantonese." Anthony looked back at the hunk of explosive. "What do you want me to do now?"
"Do you see that wire on the side there?"
"Yeah." He reached up.
"Don't touch it." Nicholas could feel the heat of his partner's anger coming through their respective shirts. "Find another wire that's the same color. It should be around the back in a very difficult to reach or see area."
"Okay." Anthony took his time. "Found it."
"Take these..." Nicholas handed him a set of clamps. "...and very, very carefully attach them to either side of the wire, but don't pull it out. Remember, our word du jour is careful."
Now, if only he could remember whether they were supposed to pull the wire out or cut it.
"I'm just about--hey!" Anthony snapped when he was suddenly thrust forward an inch. "Do you mind? What the hell are you trying to do?"
"That wasn't me." Nicholas was both surprised and perplexed--someone had a grip on his sides. Nobody else had entered the room since he'd gotten there, and there couldn't have been anybody in there before they'd arrived. Anthony would have noticed. So, who ... ?
He was thrust forward again, only this time there was an identifiable rhythm to it.
"Oh, hell, no!"
"What is that?" Anthony didn't know whether they were being attacked or experiencing an earthquake. Whichever the case, the look of utter indignation on his partner's face was priceless.
"Precious is a boy," Nicholas informed him, looking as though he'd bitten into a lemon.
"What's he doing?"
"What do you think he's doing?"
"Well, he may sniff out the biggest ass, but at least he knows to hump the biggest bottom this side of the Pacific."
"You know..." Nicholas glared." ... I used to be versatile before I met you."
"You keep right on telling yourself that." The whole matter could have been dropped right then, but Anthony couldn't resist. "This is why I tell you not to be overly friendly with the canine crew. Now, tell him to get off."
"Believe me, he's trying." Nicholas sounded thoroughly fed up. "And can I just point out that it's sad, and I mean sad, that this is the most action I've had in the last month?"
"Then by all means, how is my competition?"
"Showing more interest than you have." Nicholas craned his head towards the dog. "Precious, down!"
Precious wasn't having any of it.
"Seriously, get the ... if you leave a stain on my brand new William Fioravanti pants, I'll neuter you with my teeth."
"Excuse me?" Anthony tapped his partner's shoulder. "When did you order a pair of William Fioravanti pants?"
"This is cute." Nicholas turned back to him. "Interrogated by my partner about an internet purchase while under a desk with enough C-Four to take out this section of the house all while being humped by an oversize poodle. Not the time for this conversation." The door to the room jiggled. "Oh, shit. I think somebody's coming in."
"Didn't you lock the door?" Anthony's eyes grew wide.
"No. Didn't you? Why do I always have to be the one to think of everything?"
He quickly backed up and obscured as much of his partner as he could. Sure enough, the door flew open, and there stood Mr. Rothschild. The nosey curmudgeon had already made his way from the basement to the upstairs. Not bad for a man in his seventies.
"What are you doing in here?" Rothschild had probably seen his fair share of kink, but this was something new, and from his expression he couldn't quite take it all in and make sense of it fast enough to decide if he was turned on, revolted or both.
"Do you mind?" Nicholas demanded while Precious continued to go to town. "He's not finished yet. Fuck off and wait your turn!"
The door shut as quickly as it had opened.
"Of all the things they say we're going to hell for..." He pushed the dog away and moved forward to rejoin his partner. "Now..." He felt the same grip on his sides, indicating Precious hadn't taken the hint.
"Do you want to do something here before either the dog or the desk explodes?"
"Hand me that black nose-hair trimmer-looking thing in your tool kit." Nicholas reached while bracing himself on his free hand.
"There isn't a..." Anthony stopped. "How did this get in here?"
"I packed it."
"No, I packed it," Anthony insisted.
"No, you usually forget lots of useful things, so I repacked it." He grabbed the item, adjusted something on it with a flick of his thumb then tapped a switch.
"You repacked the bag I'd already packed?"
"Yeah. You didn't pack the little black nose-hair trimmer-looking thing, did you?" Nicholas reached back towards Precious. "You can't believe the stuff from the office I find in your drawers."
A short hiss of air sounded, and Precious let out a surprised yip then fell silent.
"You'd better hope they never come looking for any of it."
"First of all, stay the hell out of my drawers." Anthony wasn't in the mood.
"It's been practically impossible to get into them with your mother there." Nicholas returned the nose-hair trimmer-looking thing to his partner.
"Oh, shut up about that! And what the hell is this thing?"
"My new pen tranquilizer stun-gun."
"You tranked the dog? Dominic isn't going to be happy and ... that's not standard issue." Anthony studied it.
"You're right," Nicholas agreed on both counts. Dominic, their short, flamboyant gay coworker and head animal trainer, was going to be spitting nails at him for this. "It's custom-made. Trust me, Precious will be up and humping in an hour."
"Custom-made? When did you buy that?"
"Uh..." Nicholas thought for a moment. "It came with the pants."
"You and I are going to have a long talk when we get home. Now, do you want to tell me what I'm supposed to do to defuse this thing before the old guy alerts the entire household?"
"Sure." Nicholas looked at the mechanism one more time with the mirror then started backing up. "You see that red wire?" Anthony muttered that he did. "I want you to take a pair of clippers and ... um ... cut it." He stood and backed up towards the door. "I think."
"That's not funny." Anthony didn't know whether he should cut the wire or just scrap the mission before they were caught. "Do you really want me to cut it?" No answer. "Nicholas?" He heard the door handle turn. "Where are you going? Nicholas!"