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Carla Neggers

White Hot

Copyright © 1998 by Carla Neggers

This one’s for my many wonderful friends in Florida,

especially Heather Graham, Joan Johnston,

Sally Schoeneweiss, Gloria Dale Skinner, Sherryl Woods,

and the members of Florida Romance Writers.

I’ll see you by the pool in February!

And special thanks to Caroline Tolley, Lauren McKenna,

and Theresa Zoro of Pocket Books.

What a pleasure it’s been…

1

Jeremiah Tabak squinted at the scrawny kid sitting across from him at a popular South Beach sidewalk café. “You want me to check out who?”

“A woman up in Palm Beach. Her name’s Mollie Lavender.”

Croc spoke in his usual matter-of-fact, it’s-nothing-to-me tone. He claimed to be twenty-four, which was a stretch, and he liked scavenging the streets for information he could bring to Jeremiah, an investigative reporter for the Miami Tribune. He would be the first one to admit that Croc occasionally came up with good stuff. But never in his wildest flights of fancy would Jeremiah have imagined Croc, aka Blake Wilder, would come up with Mollie Lavender, the one woman on the planet who had damned good reason to roast his balls on a spit.

Croc had to be talking about another Mollie Lavender. Or maybe he’d somehow learned of Jeremiah’s week-long affair ten years ago with a college flute player named Mollie Lavender, down from Boston for spring break, and was pulling his leg.

Jeremiah shifted uncomfortably in his chair at the rickety wooden outdoor table. It was winter in south Florida, and Ocean Drive, famous for its restored Art Deco buildings and jet-setters, was crowded with scantily clad Rollerbladers, trendy Europeans, snowbirds down from Michigan, retirees in sensible shoes, and everything in between, all out to enjoy the beautiful afternoon. Water, sun, sand, pastel-colored ornate buildings. Jeremiah had first bumped into Mollie not too far from here, sitting out on her big beach towel emblazoned with musical notes. She’d had Saturday Afternoon at the Opera playing on her radio, and she was wearing a floppy hat and tons of sunscreen because she was fair-skinned and burned easily. She’d left her flute at her hotel. She’d said she felt lost without it, and Jeremiah had fallen for her on the spot.

Ten years was a long time, but some memories stuck. His week with Mollie was one of them.

Croc had to be talking about a different Mollie Lavender.

But he said, “She’s living above the garage at some fat opera singer’s place up in Palm Beach.”

Pascarelli, Jeremiah thought, swearing to himself. Mollie-his Mollie-was the goddaughter of world-famous tenor Leonardo Pascarelli. He owned a house in Palm Beach. She’d declined to stay with him that week ten years ago, she’d said, because she wanted to experience an ordinary college student’s spring break. She hadn’t, of course. Instead she’d had a fling with a hard-news reporter out for his first front-page story, and had gotten herself burned in a way she’d never imagined.

Not that she’d have had an “ordinary” spring break even if she’d never met Jeremiah. She was not, he recalled, an ordinary twenty-year-old. When he’d ended their affair and packed her off to Boston, she’d tilted her chin, flashed those lovely blue eyes, and said philosophically, “Well, I suppose every woman must have her encounter with a dark and dangerous man.”

He’d felt like a rake out of a Victorian novel. Then, less philosophically, she’d called him a lying son of a bitch, and he’d felt better. Lying sons of bitches he could understand. Apparently so could she, because he hadn’t heard from her in the ten years since she and her flute and her wounded pride had boarded the plane home to Boston. He sometimes pictured her playing in an orchestra, traveling the world with other people who listened to opera on the beach, teaching young flute students, perhaps cautioning them about falling prey to men like him-but secretly pleased she’d lost her own virginity not to some washed-out tuba player but to her one and only “dark and dangerous man.”

Croc slurped his chocolate shake. He’d ordered the same lunch he always ordered when Tabak was buying: chocolate shake, well-done burger with tomato, lettuce, extra pickles and mayonnaise, and well-done steak fries. Yet he remained skinny to the point of emaciation, although Jeremiah had no reason to suspect he was on drugs or even smoked cigarettes. Their only contact was always at Croc’s request. He had no permanent address and no regular work, which made it impossible for Jeremiah to reach him on his own. He did odd jobs: detailing cars, mopping floors, washing dishes, hauling boxes-anything that didn’t require a long commitment or extensive contact with the public. No one wanted Croc waiting tables or standing behind a checkout counter.

He sat back in his chair, jittery, which wasn’t unusual; he always had a foot or a hand moving. “She’s some kind of publicist. She’s on her own, not with one of the big firms.”

Jeremiah frowned. “A publicist?”

“Yeah. That dog that’s in the commercials is one of her clients. You know, the mutt with the attitude? And some ex-astronaut who’s taken up jazz piano, and this old geezer who’s written a book about his days in vaudeville. I guess he’s got pictures of George Burns and guys like that, stuff nobody’s ever seen before.”

Maybe it was a different Mollie after all. Jeremiah said nothing, watching Croc drag a well-browned fry through a mound of ketchup. “She’s got a few regular clients-a couple of upscale music shops, a Renaissance music society. Most of them have something to do with the arts.” He wiped his fingers on a napkin. “I guess she’s been in town five, six months.”

Jeremiah kept his face expressionless. His past relationship with Mollie, he felt sure, would be news to Croc. “If you already know so much about her, why do you need me to check her out?”

Croc lowered his shoulders and glanced surreptitiously at the surrounding tables as if he expected eavesdroppers. A German couple had taken a nearby table and were having coffee, laughing, and two women with four cranky toddlers were making a big production out of dividing up three pieces of key lime pie. Two old men were eating hot dogs at another table. There was a tableful of loud teenagers, and another of a lone woman in a business suit who looked as if she’d been stood up. No one struck Jeremiah as having the least interest in what Croc might have to say.

Finally, he leaned forward and said in a dramatic, conspiratorial whisper, “I think she could be the Gold Coast cat burglar.”

Jeremiah nearly spit out his coffee. “The who? Croc, for chrissake, if this is some kind of joke-”

“No, no, man. When have I ever bullshitted you about something this important?”

Jeremiah hissed through his teeth, his control shattered. Sorting out Croc’s hard facts and reliable leads from his fantasies and nonsense was a constant challenge, and why Jeremiah, who’d taken off on more than one wild-goose chase at Croc’s behest, put up with it was beyond him. He’d first turned up at Jeremiah’s desk at the Miami Tribune two years ago with a tidbit about an eighteen-year-old selling stolen guns to twelve-year-olds for twenty bucks each. It proved solid, and every few weeks since, he checked in. They’d developed a rapport that Jeremiah, a seasoned journalist, found alternately mystifying and frustrating. He had other sources, but none like Croc. He wasn’t a chronic liar or a hopeless paranoid so much as an imaginative kid who engaged in hyperbole and wishful thinking, sometimes blurring the line between reality and fantasy.

“You’ve heard about the cat burglar, right?” Croc asked.

Jeremiah gritted his teeth. “No.”

“Oh.” He seemed momentarily taken aback. “I figured you’d be on the story, but maybe it’s too…I don’t know, too mundane for you or something.”

     

 

2011 - 2018