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I did a feeble laugh, trying not to picture how many “explanations” Mac had spun in her lifetime.

“I like this one,” Dana said, still holding the Lady-Smith, staring down the barrel at her reflection in the smudged glass.

In all honesty, the light in her eyes was getting a little scary.

“I’ll take it.”

The saleswoman beamed like a proud Mama. “And you?” she asked me.

“I think I’ll stick with pepper spray.”

Twenty minutes later I had my mini canister of Pepper-Guard and Dana had a trunk full of ammunition. Not only had she laid out her Visa for the Smith and Wesson-which she could take possession of in a mere ten days, provided she’d never been arrested for gun running-but she’d also come away with a box full of cartridges, a leather holster, handcuffs (I so did not want to know what those were for!), and last, but certainly not least, a stun gun in the shape of a cell phone. Dana was armed and dangerous.

Miss Guns and Ammo dropped me off at my Santa Monica studio before heading off to class to show Rico her new “toys”. She tried to get me to come with her, saying they were going over frontal assaults tonight, but I begged off with the fact that I had to get some work done or my employer might threaten to fire me. Again. Which wasn’t a total lie. They hadn’t been too happy with the way my stabbing incident (not to mention marriage to Bigfoot!) had played across the front page, tarnishing their family-friendly image.

Ever since I was old enough to dress Barbie in her pink sparkly ball gowns, I’d dreamed of being a fashion model, strutting the runways of Paris in slinky couture and designer heels. However, by eighth grade it was painfully clear that even the highest stilettos weren’t going to help me achieve fashion model height. So, I did the next best thing, studying fashion design. Specifically shoes. Unfortunately, every failed model studies fashion and an actual paying job was harder to land than a contract with Cover Girl. Somehow I ended up at the only place that would take me. Tot Trots Children’s Shoe Designs. Okay, so it wasn’t exactly haute couture, but it paid the bills, I got to set my own hours, and my Spiderman flip-flops were the top-selling shoe at Payless last season. I was currently working on the Rainbow Brite jellies for the spring collection, complete with beaded shoe charms.

Paris, eat your heart out.

I let myself into my studio and checked my machine. The light was blinking. I dropped my pepper spray onto the counter and hit the play button.

“You have two new messages.”

Check me out. Maybe my social life was looking up.

I pulled a pint of Ben and Jerry’s out of the freezer (hey, shopping burns off a lot of calories, right?) while I listened to the first message.

“This is Felix Dunn with the Informer again. We plan to run a piece on you and we’d love to get a quote. Please call me back-”

Delete. You’d think by now the tabloids would have moved on to Jen’s newest flame or TomKat’s latest squabble. I mean, I only popped one boob!

I waited for the next message to start. There was a pause and some heavy breathing. Then, “I, uh, I’m looking for Madison Springer. I hope I have the right number. I saw your name in the paper. This is Larry.”

There was another pause.

“Your father.”

I stared at the phone, spoonful of Chunky Monkey suspended in midair as I blinked like mad at my machine. Did he just say what I thought he said?

Then I realized the message wasn’t over.

“I know it’s been a while. But I, uh, I read about you in the paper. How you helped the police last summer. And I could kind of use your help right now. I, uh…”

Another pause as I held my breath. There was the sound of movement in the background.

“Oh, god…what are you doing…no!

I froze as a loud bang rang out from the machine, reverberating off the walls of my tiny studio apartment.

Maybe it was the evening of learning the difference between a.45 and.40 caliber weapon. Maybe it was the fact that last summer’s run-in with Miss Homicide was still just a little too fresh in my mind. Or maybe it was just my overactive imagination at work.

But my mind instantly hit on the source of the sound. A gunshot.

The machine clicked over.

Beep. “End of messages.”

Chapter Two

I stared at the phone, my breath lodged in my throat as my heart threatened to pound out of my rib cage. My body immediately remembered the last time I’d heard a gun go off-when it had been aimed at me!-and I went into panic mode. I grabbed the phone and dialed the first number I could think of. Ramirez.

It rang three times. Then I got his voice mail. Damn. I tried to calm my breathing as I waited for the beep.

“It’s Maddie. I think I’ve just been ear witness to another murder. My dad was shot. Not Faux Dad, the real dad. The hairy one. He got shot. Or he shot someone. I don’t know which. But there was definitely a gunshot and he was definitely there and he needed my help and now I think someone’s dead. Or dying. Or probably at least wounded. Call me.”

I hung up wishing I didn’t automatically go into blabber mode when crisis hit. Why couldn’t I be one of those calm, cool-headed women who could make a tourniquet out of a tampon and a gum wrapper? Instead I had to freak out like a little kid lost at the mall.

I dialed Mom’s number. It rang four times and the machine kicked on. “Hi, you’ve reached Betty…”

“…and Ralph,” my stepfather chimed in.

“We’re not here right now, so leave a number at the beep…”

“…or try us at the salon. Ciao!” Faux Dad finished.

I hung up. When Ramirez got my blabbering message he’d probably roll his eyes and make some comment about how girly I was. That, I could live with. Mom, on the other hand, would likely call in the National Guard to make sure I was okay. Which, in all honesty, I was.

It was the guy on the other end of the line who was in trouble.

My dad.

I sat down on my futon, absently shoving a spoonful of ice cream into my mouth as I conjured up the image of that hairy arm waving goodbye from the El Camino window.

When I was deep in my teenage-angst phase I’d badgered my mom into talking about my father. Just once. She said they’d met at a Bob Dylan concert, that he was 6′1″, allergic to strawberries, and had run off to Vegas with some showgirl named Lola. When she got to the Lola part she broke down sobbing, the kind of racking tears that scared the crap out of my teenaged self. Needless to say, I hadn’t broached the subject since, and she hadn’t offered.

I wondered if he was still in Vegas. I grabbed the handset and scrolled down my call log. Out of area. Well, that didn’t tell me much. He could have been calling from anywhere.

And what kind of help did he need? Was he sick? Did he need a kidney? It would be just like a man to waltz back into my life after twenty-six years and ask for a vital organ.

Only he hadn’t sounded sick. He’d sounded…in trouble. In serious trouble, if that really was a gunshot. I tried not to picture him wounded or bleeding somewhere.

Maybe I should call 911. But what would I tell them? Someone somewhere might have been shot? I had no idea where he was, or even if it was, in fact, my father calling. I’d gotten more than one crank phone call since my brush with fame. And to be honest, the more I thought about it, the less sure I was that the sound was even an actual gunshot. Maybe it was just a car backfiring?

I shoved another big scoop of Chunky Monkey into my mouth, hoping that the creamy chocolate and banana goodness might calm me down.

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