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Designed For Death (#1)
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The Barefoot Queen

In The Lion's Mouth

Chapter One

     “Sometimes one is enough,” Imogene Stirling said. “Take husbands. One is plenty.” She paused to think that over. “At least at a time. Same for swimming pools. Or a Blueteeth.”
     “Oh. Right. Well, you know what I mean.”
     “Umm-hmm.” I stared out the windshield. Southbound cars on the Tamiami Trail were running bumper to bumper. Usually I avoided morning rush hour traffic, but Imogene wanted to tour the Naples Design Mall early so we could get back to Fifth Avenue by eleven. She had a pedicure appointment at Ten Toes and couldn’t possibly change it.
     “But with implants, though,” she went on, “you need two.”
     I tore my attention from the road for a millisecond to glance across the front seat at Imogene’s chest. “You’re fine as you are.”
     “Oh, Deva, you’re so behind the times. Nobody’s a B anymore.”
     That was news to me. I was.
     “I wanted Ds,” Imogene said. “But I only had money for one. I tried to convince Jimmy to spring for the other one, but he wouldn’t.” She half turned in her seat to stare across at me. “Don’t you think that was cheap of him?”
     “Who’s Jimmy?”
     “My ex.”
     “Oh. Well, you can’t walk around with the Alps on one side and the Calusa Indian Mound on the other.”
     While she processed that, an eighteen-wheeler whizzed past on the left, the downdraft sending the Audi into a shuddering fit. I gripped the wheel.
     “Imogene, we need to think about lighting fixtures for your kitchen and dining area. And what about overhead fans? In this climate, you have to keep the air moving.”
     “I know. But looking for stuff like that is so boring.”
     I passed a Cadillac Seville doing forty-five and cut to the right.
     “Anyway, Jimmy was so tight he wouldn’t loan me the money. Not even when I promised to pay him back.”
     “Well you know what they say. One out of two ain’t bad.”
     “Please don’t joke, Deva. I’m serious. When you’re short like I am, no one pays attention to you. I want people to see me.”
     “Two Ds will do it.”
     “Exactly! Thanks for telling me I’m on the right track.”
     Is that what I’d done? All I wanted was to sell some fixtures and get back ASAP to my shop, Deva Dunne Interiors. For the past six months, since my wonderful friend and assistant, Lee St. James, had moved to Paris, I’d been running the business single-handedly. That had to end. Soon. I simply had to advertise for a new assistant, but I kept putting it off for some reason. Actually, the reason being I didn’t think I’d find anyone who would measure up to Lee.
     But here it was a Monday, and the shop closed yet again. Though I depended on word-of-mouth advertising, not foot traffic, keeping regular hours made good business sense.
     Stifling a sigh, I exited the highway and turned right. Straight ahead, facing a circular drive studded with royal palm trees, lay the Naples Design Mall, a gorgeous white monolith of a building boasting turrets on each corner of the roof and an entrance with massive bronze doors worthy of Buckingham Palace. I pulled into the parking area that abutted the grassy circle and switched off the ignition.
     Imogene eyeballed the place and glanced away, unfazed. Her mind was elsewhere. “What really made me mad was that if my ex wanted something for himself, there was never a problem. He had every male toy in the world. Probably still does. Three cars, a motorcycle, a boat, an airplane, a golf cart.”
     “A golf cart isn’t outrageous. A lot of men in Florida have one.”
     “But he doesn’t play golf. Besides all that, he has a diamond pinkie ring to die for. But for something I wanted, he always found an excuse.”
     “Maybe he liked you just as you are. Why fix something that doesn’t need fixing?”
     And physically Imogene didn’t need any changing at all. Petite with luxuriant chestnut hair, startling white skin—she obviously never sat in the sun—and huge blue if somewhat vacuous eyes—she was a ten all right.
     When she climbed out of the Audi in her red mini dress and painful stilettos, I upped the ten to eleven.
     What made her think she didn’t get any attention? As we approached the massive entrance to the mall, Phil the doorman practically ripped the door off its hinges to open it for us. Well, for her. At thirty-four, actually thirty-four and a half, with frizzy red hair and freckles, I wasn’t the object of his eyeballs. Not even in tight black pants and a flowy gauze top.
     Neither was the man who ran out through the open doorway. Dressed in running shorts, T-shirt and Nikes, he darted from the building before we could step inside. “Hey, buddy, where did you come from?” Phil called. Dashing between us, the man threw him a wide-eyed look and raced out onto the circle of clipped lawn fronting the mall.
     Phil turned to us. “Sorry, ladies. You’re our first visitors today. I can’t believe I didn’t see that guy come in.”
     “Look! He’s in trouble.” I pointed across the driveway. As if he’d dropped mid-stride, the runner lay unmoving in the grassy circle, his face pressed into the lawn, the heels of his sneakers aiming for the sky.
     I ran across the drive and knelt beside him. He was out cold and smelled of sweat. I took his hand and rubbed it. Somewhere in his thirties, he had the fit, lean look of a seasoned jogger. Behind me I could hear Imogene’s spike heels hitting the driveway pavers and the clump of Phil’s shoes.
     “Is he…is he…dead?” Imogene asked, coming up behind me.
     “No. He’s breathing.” I patted his cheek. He hadn’t shaved lately. Probably out on a morning run before getting ready for the day. “Wake up, sir. Wake up,” I pleaded.
     He didn’t stir. I looked over my shoulder. Imogene and Phil stood there wearing the same what-do-we-do-now expression.
     “Imogene, call 9-1-1,” I said.
     She opened her bag and rummaged around in it, looking for her cell phone. She was elbow-deep in the tote when Phil said, “Never mind, miss. I’ve got it.”
     He retrieved a phone from his pocket and punched in the numbers. He’d no sooner done so than the runner stirred and opened his eyes. As I knelt there pressing his hand, he smiled up at me for an instant. Then, with a cry like a kitten’s mewl, he freed his hand, leaped to his feet, and raced down the driveway. A moment later as we all watched, mouths agape, he ran out of sight.
     “Great,” Phil said, disgusted. “Now I’ve got to do a bunch of explaining to 9-1-1.”
     “At least the man recovered,” I said. “I wonder what caused him to pass out? People don’t normally keel over like that, right out of the blue.”
     Phil shrugged. “Who knows? The guy’s a weirdo. Comes in the mall every day, but usually not this early.”
     “Really? He didn’t look as though he’d be interested in interior design.”
     Phil barked out a laugh. “No kidding. He just comes in, goes to the Library—that’s our snack bar,” he explained to Imogene, “has a bottle of water and leaves. At least he doesn’t bother anybody. I guess that’s why no one’s told me to keep him from entering.”
     Besides being illegal, that would be bad PR. I was glad the runner had been left alone to do his thing, whatever it was. His fleeting wisp of a smile was probably what caused me to think so. It had made him look vulnerable somehow, like a shy, sweet kind of guy.
     Once again, Phil opened the door for us, then stood outside to call 9-1-1 and cancel the request for an ambulance. As always, at first sight of the mall’s interior, I felt a frisson of excitement. The low-ceilinged entry hall with its lighted window displays on either side was like a delicious appetizer before a banquet. The hall ended at the reception area with a desk shaped like the prow of a ship. This was the command center of Sandra, the suave lady who fielded all visitor calls and questions.
     Beyond Sandra’s station, a shop-lined atrium soared three stories high, flooded with light pouring in through a glass ceiling.
     “This is beautiful.” Imogene looked around at the showrooms, at the white leather lounge furniture centering the atrium, at the ornate metal railing encircling the second floor balcony. She tipped her head back and peered farther up—at the third-floor landing. Like the second floor, it too was lined with shops and ringed with a metal railing.
     As she stared upward, she went rigid, blinking furiously as if unable to believe what her eyes were seeing. A split second of disbelief. A split second only and then she screamed, her shrill cries bouncing off the slick surfaces and echoing throughout the gorgeous Naples Design Mall. I glanced up, a chill running down my spine. Suddenly the mall didn’t seem so gorgeous anymore.

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