If you really want to lose yourself in a crowd, make yourself as noticeable as possible.
It was one of the gems of wisdom passed along to Caitlin Catherine Callahan by her father. As in most things, Cat thought as she pushed the purple metallic and rhinestone glasses frames back up the bridge of her nose, Daddy was right.
Though the restaurant was overflowing with the lunch crowd rush, none of the other diners dared toss more than an embarrassed quick glance her way as she sat alone at the small table. It just wouldn't have been politically correct for them to stare open-mouthed at the spectacle she presented. That politically correct attitude played right into Cat's hands.
From the teased, sprayed, bouffant, flame-red beehive rising a good foot from the top of her head to the four-inch platform, bejeweled clogs on her feet, Cat presented an awkwardly, unusual sight among the pinned-down, dressed-for-success Yuppies among whom she sat. While they wore power ties and chic white satin, Cat wore a hot pink and green, striped, spandex tube top stretched beyond imagination over a full-term pregnant belly. While they wore crisp linen skirts and lethally creased trousers, Cat wore the tightest, shortest orange mini-skirt imaginable.
"And, how can we serve madam today?" the waiter broke into her surveillance of the uptight crowd. "Perhaps something to go?"
Cat looked up at him. Gulping deeply, she found herself unable to look down at the menu she now gripped tightly under whitening fingers. Hypnotic. Captivating. She'd never seen two larger, deeper more emerald eyes. She was drawn into them, trapped amid the golden and copper glints dancing merrily as they gazed back at her.
"Hey, Charlie. You've got an order up," another waiter called to him. He turned his head to nod acknowledgment and broke the spell, releasing Cat from its unreasonable hold on her senses. She shook her head, nearly dislodging the beehive wig from its perch atop her head and almost disconnecting the thin cable linking the small parabolic antenna hidden within the curls of the wig. Her hands flew to her head as she carefully repinned the wig in place.
"I'm sorry," Charlie smiled down at her again. "Now, what can I get you?"
Two weeks with him on a sunny stretch of beach on a deserted island in the tropics and the luggage lost by the airline, she thought, hesitantly glancing up at him. "I'm...I'm waiting," she murmured. "Could I have a glass of water?"
"Doesn't look like you have too much longer to wait," Charlie smiled down at her. Two perfect rows of dazzling white teeth temporarily delayed his words from registering in her mind.
"W-w-what?" Cat stammered, glancing quickly around the cafe. Was her mission here so obvious? How could he possibly know she had this joint staked out?
"The baby," he said, pointing to her bulging tummy with the end of his pen. "Looks like you'll be a mommy before much longer."
"Oh, that," Cat sighed, patting the false pregnancy pillow that contained the small video recorder. "No, I'm hoping today this little baby will pay off big."
"I beg your pardon?" Charlie asked, raising one perfectly sculpted dark brown eyebrow. He took one step back from the table. "Pay off big? No, don't tell me. There are some things I don't really want to know. Now, what kind of water would you like--mineral, spring, carbonated? We have a nice variety of designer waters, as well."
"No, what I meant was that I was due today," Cat blushed, trying to cover her misspoken words. She carefully smoothed out the menu on the table in front of her, purposely avoiding his captivating eyes. It was no use. Unbidden her eyes looked up to his. "After nine months, the pay off will finally be having it."
"Whatever you say, ma'am," he said, glancing back at the doors to the kitchen. "Now, about that water you wanted..."
"Just water," she sighed, unable to stop from batting her eyelashes in a coquettish fashion. "You know, turn on the tap, hold a glass under it, let it fill. That kind of water."
"Look, miss," Charlie whispered, leaning close to Cat. "There's a nice little deli right across the street--good common food at a good price. Tell them that Charlie sent you. The pastrami there is to die for...and the potato salad melts in your mouth. Do yourself a favor--the food here costs ten times what it should, the portions are less than skimpy and I wouldn't feed them to a dog."
"Water would be just fine for now," Cat smiled up at him. With an unhappy shake of the head, Charlie straightened, pulling the tight black vest snugly down with one hand.
"Water it is," he groaned, twirling on one toe as he headed for the kitchen. Cat appreciated the play of his lightweight, black gabardine, tight pants over muscularly sculpted buttocks. This was a bonus she hadn't anticipated when she'd taken the assignment from Universal Insurance.
She'd positioned herself carefully--arriving at Cafe Nouveau Cuisine an hour before her prey normally entered to dine. Lamont Lewis' habits were becoming as well known to her as the pastrami Charlie raved about earlier. For a week, she'd commandeered a table near the window of the deli to watch and note the times Lamont arrived and departed--as well as who accompanied him into the cafe.
Now that she felt confident of her prey's habits, Cat was determined to sit at the table next to the one he always captained. Determination, her father always said, and patience were the most important tools of the trade. Cat proudly possessed both. Yet, she worried that neither was enough to keep the agency going as well as keep a roof over her mother's and her head.
Nervously, she played with the huge, yellow daisy pin encrusted with rhinestones that she'd carefully pinned to the center of her top--directly between her two enhanced breasts. That morning as she'd carefully dressed for the occasion, it occurred to her that pregnant women were usually better endowed than nature had blessed her. Two rolled tube socks created the maternal effect she sought.
Cat forced her fingers back to the table, wishing that her disguise hadn't forced her to abandon her cigarettes in the car. While she didn't know all that much about pregnancy and motherhood, she knew that pregnant women weren't supposed to smoke. She was reminded of that every time she noticed the warnings prominently posted on the pack. Yet, a cigarette would go far to calm her nerves.
This was the most important case Cat ever attempted on her own--without her father's gentle suggestions and assistance. Word of his sudden death a year before from a heart attack drove most of their agency's better clients in search of more experienced private investigators. In the interim, she'd been forced to accept small cases--mostly snapping photographs of unfaithful spouses caught in the act of leaving motels--and serving summons. After a dozen false starts in careers to which she was not destined to succeed and a marriage destined for failure almost before it began, Cat returned home to take up the family trade. The question remained of whether the trade would allow Cat to succeed.
Then, just a week ago, Henry Walters, an official with the insurance company, walked into the cramped offices of the Black Cat Detective Agency. It was like the heavens opened up and blessed Cat. If she were able to solve this one, Universal Insurance would no doubt pass the word that she was every bit as reliable as her father had been. The possibilities were limitless--if Cat could come through on her own.
Best not to think about the alternative of not succeeding, Cat thought, as she adjusted the tiny earpiece again. She glanced at her watch. Lamont should enter the restaurant at any moment. It was time to test her equipment. Casually, she attempted to cross her leg, but the pregnancy pillow prevented her from completing the act. Regretting her lack of practice in the disguise, slowly Cat reached down to the hem of her skirt and reached up her leg to the small box held in place with duct tape. She flicked the remote switch on, hearing the recording come to life in her ear.
With the nonchalance of a professional--she hoped--Cat turned toward a table just across the aisle. Three young women sat picking over salads and whispering to one another.
"I tell you it's true," one said, puncturing the air with a primly held fork to emphasize her words. "Buffy told Pammy who told her maid. Pammy's maid told my mother's housekeeper who told her and Mumsy told me just this morning. Edward has a thing for Becca--in fact, he's planning on taking her to Paris. Oh, he said it was just to help him on a project, but we all know that's just a facade."
"Tiffany will be livid if she finds out about this. You know she's had her hooks in Edward for ages," another said. "She even got those great implants just to impress him."
"Pul-leeze. Spare me. The day I resort to plastic surgery to land a man is the day you can chop up my gold card!" the first exclaimed in a dramatic whisper.
Hearing enough, Cat quickly flipped the remote switch off. She resisted the impulse to shake her head at the futility of the lives of the idle rich. Though, she thought, not having to worry about making enough to pay the office rent would be nice. As well as enough money to maybe jet off occasionally on a holiday, rent a better apartment, buy some nice clothes. Just as she was visualizing herself dripping in diamonds and swathed in ermine, a commotion near the door drew her attention back to her task.
There he was--Lamont Lewis. Followed by his usual entourage of henchmen, Lamont was nodding and waving to select diners in the cafe as he made his way to the table. Impeccably dressed in a three-piece charcoal gray suit with the requisite red power tie, Lamont towered above the crowd. Every lock of his well-cut deep brown hair was in its exact perfect place. The lightest touch of silver at his temples added an air of distinction, framing his perfectly handsome, sculpted bronzed face. He looked like a movie star as he motioned the others to sit before sliding into his own chair. He was definitely in command of himself and the others.
Immediately, two waiters rushed to the table flourishing the gold-etched menus as they handed them around the table. Lamont waved off the menu as he smiled at the waiter.
Cat reached back down and flipped on the remote. She directed her head straight at Lamont, while glancing around the table to take note of whom he'd brought with him to lunch. She recognized two of them as corporate attorneys--well-paid mouthpieces for Amalgamated Property Management and Development. Another was his personal assistant, Arnold Stokes, a mealy-mouthed toad constantly bobbing his head in agreement with the boss. The rest of the table was filled with the company's chief architect, construction boss and top salesman.
Lamont glanced at his expensive gold Rolex watch, then looked directly at Cat. Embarrassed at being caught staring at him, she dropped her eyes to the menu.
"Now, that is a sight," Lamont laughed softly. "Don't be too obvious, but check out that bimbo sitting right behind you. You guys didn't tell me the carnival was in town. That is one freaky chick."
"Oh, you're right there, boss," Arnold smiled smugly, nodding in agreement. "She's a freak all right."
Cat's eyes trained themselves on the menu while fighting the impulse to toss a quick, one-fingered salute to the great Lamont Lewis. Immediately, all the things Mr. Walters had told her about him rang true. Arrogant. Proud. Devious. Manipulative. Conceited. And, a downright, dirty thief to boot.
"Ah, at least we're having a bit of entertainment with lunch today," Lamont sighed, shaking out his napkin before settling it on his knee. "But, down to business. Guys, what I'm about to tell you will go no farther than this table. If any of you breathe a word, well...I think you know the obvious outcome of anyone who dares betray me."
Cat anxiously cast a quick look up at the table in time to see Lamont cast dark looks into each of the other men's eyes. Lamont Lewis was just as dangerous as Mr. Walters had warned. That was obvious.
"Sid and Abe and I have been in conference all morning," Lamont continued, glancing at his two attorneys. "And, we think we know how to deal with that bitch I'm ditching--and, in a way that won't send me to the poor farm. So, when you start hearing rumors about Amalgamated going belly up, just act like it's the absolute truth. We all know we've never been in a better position financially, but until we can get the majority of our assets buried deep, we need to let the world think I'm damn near bankrupt."
Though she'd never doubted her client's claims, Cat realized that Lamont Lewis was out to rob his wife of everything that was rightfully hers. She'd read with interest the dossier supplied to her by Mr. Walters--listing likely suspects in the theft from the art gallery and providing background about each one. The Simpson Diamond Collection was really the property of Lewis' wife, Carole. She'd loaned them to the gallery to display, but despite all precautions, they'd been stolen. So, the gallery reported the theft to the police, who'd had no luck in finding the culprit, and filed a claim with Universal Insurance.
According to the dossier, and from what Mr. Walters had told her, Cat knew that while the diamonds were but a small fraction of the wealth possessed by Carole Lewis, they were the most sentimental of her possessions. Her grandmother had sewn the collection into the hems of her skirt and coat before she'd escaped from cruel, aristocratic husband in England. Her grandmother used the collection as security to borrow money. She'd found true love and financial security in the man she'd hired as an assistant, Bert Simpson. That was the start of Simpson Industries, and the beginning of her own fortune. Even the scandal of her divorce and remarriage failed to blacken her when wealth beyond reason poured in from their hard work.
After Grandmother Simpson's death, the diamonds passed to her daughter, Carole's mother, and then to Carole after her parents were killed in an airplane crash. In the newspaper photos that accompanied the dossier, the sight of a grief-stricken Carole Lewis tugged at Cat's heart. As she'd looked around the cramped offices of Black Cat, she knew that some sentiment went beyond the bounds of wealth and prosperity and could understand Carole Lewis' grief.
Then, when she read of the affair Lamont Lewis was conducting with the epitome of a blonde bimbo--whose soul skill seemed to be posing with a distracted expression on the arms of any wealthy man who'd take notice of her, Cat's memory of finding her husband in the arms of another woman intensified her desire to help not only Universal Insurance, but also Carole Lewis. No wife deserved to be replaced by the likes of Amber Taylor.
"What we're going to do is roll as much as we can over. Liquidate all the assets we can and bury the money in off shore banks--probably the Bahamas. Then, when it looks like we're nearly ready to close shop, I'll offer the witch a deal. Half a million and her freedom in return for the company," Lamont said, leaning back in his chair. "She'll jump at the chance."
"That hardly seems fair, Lamont," Sam Keifer, the architect, commented, disgustedly throwing his napkin on the table. "Carole's grandmother started that company. Built it from the ground up. Her father made it what it is today. Hell, Carole was his chief assistant until she married you. That company is worth a hundred times what you're going to offer her. Don't you have any scruples, Lamont?"
"All's fair in love and business, Sam," Lamont chuckled evilly. "She'll have her choice. She doesn't need to agree to the divorce. I'll stay married to her, but the cars and houses and credit cards will be gone with the wind. I figure half a million is enough for her to land some other sucker."
"What about Amber? I thought you promised her you'd marry her. What's she going to say about this?" Sam ventured.
"As long as Amber thinks I'm her ticket to paradise, she'll do anything I say. She's already proved her loyalty to me in ways you couldn't begin to imagine," Lamont bragged. "Sam, my boy, what's this sudden attack of conscious? Do I need to remind you I can guarantee no one will ever hire you to design a dog house if you cross me on this? Do I need to remind you of those shortcuts you approved on those nice little houses we turned out in the Hillsdale Development?"
"No, you don't have to remind me, but I don't have to sit here and watch you gloat about it either," Sam said, pushing back from the table and rising. "You play your little games. Just leave me out of them."
Cat followed the architect's angry stride as he walked from the table and slammed the door open before he left. Score a big ten for that one, she thought, as she watched him disappear into the crowd on the sidewalk.
"So, boss, are you going to have me courier the loot down to the islands?" Arnold asked hopefully, his head nodding like a bouncing ball. "Can't use Amber this time."
"No, Arnie, you're too obvious," Lamont commented. "I have the perfect pigeon picked out for this. In fact, he works here as a waiter. This stooge is totally clueless. He's just perfect for the job. No one will ever connect us."
"Which one is he, boss?"
"Here's your water, ma'am," Charlie said, lightly setting the glass down in front of Cat. His voice, so close to the antenna, boomed in her ears. The glass hitting the table reverberated so loudly that Cat instinctively tore the earpiece from her ear. "Now, what can I get you to eat?"
Cat's eyes crossed as she blindly sought the remote switch strapped to her leg. Nimble fingers switched it off as she looked again up into his four eyes. No, wait. She knew he only had two eyes, but the sudden pounding in her head made it hard to concentrate. She shook her head to clear it as the wig teetered precariously before settling askew on her head.
"What? What did you say?" Cat gasped.
"Food? What can I get you to eat?" Charlie repeated. She noted he had a strange look in his eyes and seemed to be attempting to hold back a chuckle by biting his lower lip.
"What?" Cat asked again, squinting her eyes as she looked up at him.
"What would you like to order?" Charlie leaned over close to her ear and shouted. "I think you lost your hearing aid."
Loud noise was the last thing Cat needed to hear at that moment. She slapped her hand over her ear and leaned away from him, but not before catching the slightest hint of his deep wooded cologne. As tempting as leaning forward to catch another sniff might have been, Cat treasured her hearing more. With quick fingers she slipped the earpiece back in her ear and smiled at him.
"There. Much better. Thank you," she replied, reaching up to pat her wig back in place. "I'll just have a burger and fries, please."
"Ahh, a good choice. The ground round with potatoes julienne," Charlie said, quickly writing down the order. He leaned back close to her and whispered, "By the way, either you're a Martian or you have a wire sticking out of your hair. Ladies' room is in the back on the left."
The blush burning Cat's cheeks must have rivaled the fire of her wig, she thought, as she hesitantly raised her hand to the exposed antenna. "Pardon me," she breathed.
"Don't worry about it," Charlie grinned. "I have two cousins. I know the weird things you women do to look attractive."
As Charlie spun away to take her order to the kitchen, Cat struggled to her feet and waddled toward the ladies' room. Pulling a hair pick from her purse, Cat surveyed the damage in the mirror and carefully combed the synthetic hair back in place over the antenna. Glancing around to make sure she was alone, she pulled up her shirt and scratched the sweaty flesh under the pregnancy pillow, sighing with relief.
Just as she was taking one last scratch, the door opened and the three giggling women burst through the door. They froze in their steps as they looked at Cat, hand under her shirt carefully adjusting her belly. Three hands flew to three mouths as the women skirted around Cat and disappeared into three stalls. The giggles echoed in the acoustics off the chic Venetian tiles lining the walls as the women could no longer control their mirth.
Angrily, Cat pulled open the door, then let it slide shut while she remained leaning against the counter. She folded her arms across the bulge of her false belly and waited. It didn't take more than a few seconds for the payoff.
"My God, did you see that?" a voice called from behind a door. "They let just anything in here, won't they?"
"What man in his right mind would even look at something like that--let alone impregnate it?" a voice asked in response.
"I know. Don't try to picture it. There are some things just better not visualized," the third voice laughed loudly. "I'm scared to think of what the offspring would look like. It gives me chills."
Three toilets flushed in unison just before the doors opened. Three mouths dropped open as three sets of eyes stared at Cat, who smiled broadly back at them.
"I just stayed to warn you, dears," Cat grinned. "You know, I have this condition--maybe you read about it in some of the medical journals. Or saw the television movie? You see, I used to be just like you."
Cat walked up to the first woman. She picked an invisible piece of lint off the lapel of her tailored jacket. "You see, I was upwardly mobile. No glass ceiling in sight. Assistant to the CEO of a major conglomerate. And then, suddenly, with no warning--I started wearing jeans to work. Boom--one day Armani; the next day Levis. I couldn't control it."
Cat moved to the next woman--still frozen in the open stall door--and placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. "Well, you can imagine my embarrassment. But, I couldn't stop myself. The next day, some of us went for drinks after work. Instead of ordering my usual wine spritzer, I ordered a beer. Not a fine, gently brewed beer--but one in a can. And, I drank it straight out of the can. Then I belched and crushed the can against my forehead.
"It was horrid. I lost my job. I lost my condo. I found myself shopping at second hand clothing stores and...and...discount stores. And then, my boyfriend knocks me up and jets out to Club Med. I could've been a Trump--now I'm nothing but a tramp."
Cat gently pinched the woman's pale cheek before moving to the third woman who stepped gingerly back into the stall. The door slammed in Cat's face. "I can understand your fear, but it's really not contagious. No, this disease chooses its victims carefully. It seems to only strike women who are extremely shallow, self-centered and self-serving. Women who look down at their sisters because they're just not too confident in themselves. So beware--there's no known cure."
Cat backed away from the stalls toward the door. She reached behind and caught the door handle pulling it open. "So beware," Cat warned as she backed from the room. "Beware...beware...beware."
She turned and slapped the wall, choking back the tears of laughter threatening to erupt. Sure, it was cruel to scare those empty-headed wimps, but it sure was fun. And, Cat doubted they'd be as quick next time to look down their pointy noses at those less fortunate. She collected herself and walked back to her table.
As she was approaching, she noticed Charlie accepting a piece of paper from Lamont Lewis. He quickly stuffed the paper in his shirt pocket under his vest. In one motion, she sat down and slapped the remote switch back on.
"So, you'll just owe me one," Lamont was telling Charlie. "Sometime maybe you can do me a favor."
"Thanks, Mr. Lewis," Charlie replied before glancing over at Cat. "And, I do appreciate this."
"It will be remembered," Charlie added, walking briskly back toward the kitchen.
Cat felt her heart clench tightly in her chest. So much for that random thought of coming back to the cafe dressed normally to try to get to know him better. Now, she was professionally obligated to get to know him a lot better. He was one of the bad guys--probably the stooge who was going to courier Carole's money to Lamont's secret accounts.
"That your guy, boss? Is he the one?" Arnie was nodding urgently at Lamont.
"Never mind, Arnie," Lamont said, lifting his sandwich to his mouth. "What you don't know won't hurt me."
As their conversation plunged into ball scores and babes, Cat idly switched off the remote and sat back in her chair. There was no doubt in her mind about her next move. One way or another she had to get a look at what was written on the paper Lamont had given Charlie. Just how she was going to do that she hadn't a clue.
"Here you go," Charlie smiled, whipping the plate from around her back to set on the table. She looked up into his traitorous eyes. Inspiration struck.
"OUCH!" she screamed, grabbing both of the lapels of his vest and drawing him down to her. "The pain. It's ripping me in two."
"Easy now, ma'am," Charlie cried, fear filling his eyes. He tried to pull away from her grasp, but couldn't. Quickly, Cat slid her hand under his vest and palmed the paper from his pocket.
"It's...it's the baby," Cat screamed, releasing her grip and sliding her hands palm down on the table. She beat the table with one hand while grabbing her pregnancy pillow with the other. Quickly, she slid the paper into the waistband of her skirt. As soon as it was secure, she sat back up. "There, it's over. Thanks. I feel much better now."
"Ma'am, do you want me to call an ambulance?" Charlie said, looking furiously around for help in the silent restaurant. Forks frozen before mouths, the other patrons in the cafe were mesmerized by the sight and screams Cat provided.
"No, no need. Just another false alarm. Sorry I scared you," Cat beamed up at him. "I'll just eat my lunch and be on my way."
"Positive--now if you had some western dressing for my fries, I'd appreciate it."
"Right away," Charlie called, as he ran for the kitchen door.
Success. Cat breathed a sigh of relief as she reached for her hamburger. Just as she was taking a huge mouthful, the three women she'd encountered in the ladies' room rushed by her table and out the door. She watched as they began to quickly walk away but stopped just a few feet down the street when they encountered a street beggar. All three fought to open their purses and extract as much cash as they could shove in the surprised beggar's hands. Then, all three glanced back at the cafe before sprinting off down the street.
All sorts of success, Cat thought, happily chewing on her hamburger. When she finished her lunch, Charlie presented her with her check. As she fumbled with her purse, she pulled the piece of paper from her waistband and slid it inside. Inside her purse, she opened it and read--"First National Bank--2:30 today--ask for Stan."
She carefully refolded the note and palmed it. Pulling a twenty-dollar bill from her purse, she tossed it on the check and stood. As she waddled toward the door, she stopped briefly at Lamont's table. She looked at him closely, then stepped closer.
"I just have to tell you that is the most dynamic tie I've ever seen," Cat complimented him, pulling up his tie for closer inspection while dropping the note on the floor. "Simply dynamic. It just screams success."
"Why, thank you," Lamont said, scrambling to rise.
"No, please, don't bother," Cat said, pushing him back down in his seat. "I'm just leaving. You have a nice day now."
She turned on her heel and headed out the door. She stopped momentarily on the sidewalk to remember where she parked her car. As she jogged down the street, she glanced back at the cafe.
"Have a real nice day, you slime. You're not going to have too many more of them."