Blood Red Carpet

Stage One






The fresh air of midmorning on the lake was wonderful, crisp and light. Mr. Peppermint sipped his coffee and turned the page of the paper but only half of his attention was on the news in front of his eyes. Out of the corner of his vision, he checked the hatch of the yacht and the depths below, alert for any sound or movement beyond that of the water.



So far, nothing, and he smirked gently to himself, feeling a moment of smug pride. Miss Chocolate might be young and nubile and flexible—dear GOD was she flexible—but he was fairly sure that even she couldn’t escape the ingenious bonds he’d done her up in: ankles together, wrists together, upper arms to her torso in sweet even turns of the translucent binding.



Saran wrap could be SO frustrating, Mr. Peppermint mused.



Still, once the hour was up and he declared victory, he’d make it up to her in many sweet and soothing ways: dinner on the town, maybe an overnight jet trip to Cozumel for a few days of diving along the reefs there . . . so much to enjoy in the time they had left, so many things to see and do and share---



Or, they could stay aboard the Bohemian and keep having mind-blowing sex. Mr. Peppermint closed his eyes and thought about that blissfully for a long moment, savoring memories that were still new enough that he still had afterglow.



He took a breath, and as he did so, the cool links of a silver chain dropped over his head and around his throat. Mr. Peppermint sat perfectly still, his nostrils flaring a bit. The chain tightened around his neck—not dangerously, but warningly so.



“It’s not wise to bet against the person with the home advantage, Mr. Peppermint,” purred a soft voice in his ear. He didn’t turn his head, but his grin was definitely wry.



“Touché, Miss Chocolate. May I ask how you overcame the wrap?”



The warm breath against the shell of his ear was wonderfully arousing, and Mr. Peppermint tried not to quiver when she laughed softly.



“Hmmm, quite a puzzle, isn’t it? There you had me in my bra and panties, coiled in cling wrap and left on the bunk. I’m sure you were just basking up here in the thought that you could come down and gloat over my immobility in the next few minutes. And the tensile strength of the average Saran is pretty impressive. It WAS a pretty good plan.”



Mr. Peppermint said nothing, but his mouth twitched a little.



She continued softly, “You were good about wrapping, you really were. Too bad you weren’t good about kissing me before you left, or you might have found this---“ In her free hand, Miss Peppermint held out a small white pushpin.



Mr. Peppermint stared at it. Miss Chocolate came around to grin at his profile in the sunlight. “Tucked between cheek and gum, a nice little point. With my teeth gripping the base, I was able to poke a line of holes through the wrap around my torso. And that made tearing it very simple. Once my torso was free I was able to use the pin to perforate my wrist wraps and repeat the maneuver.”



“Ingenious,” Mr. Peppermint agreed respectfully. “I’ll have to make it a habit to kiss you much more thoroughly every time I leave you. And coming up behind me?”



“I slipped through the cabin porthole—it’s wider than you think—and worked my way around the outside of the Bohemian to climb up on the other side of you,” Miss Chocolate expounded.



He risked cocking his head; the chain tightened a fraction more. “Equally brilliant.”



“Thank you. I try to think outside the boat.”



The pun sent another little shiver of arousal through him and he closed his eyes. “I yield—“



She laughed, low and sweet; the sound of a gloat in her tone. “You do indeed, this time. I want my prize.”



He nodded, being careful of the chain around his throat. “Fair enough. I assume you need to get dressed?”



She laughed and he felt the chain slide away from his neck. Carefully coming around in to his view, Miss Chocolate dropped her hands on her hips and grinned. “Very probably, since most shops have a dress code around here.”



Mr. Peppermint let the sweetest smirk cross his face as he took in the sight of her. “You are a credit to your lingerie.” He reached out a hand, but Miss Chocolate stepped back, her own grin slightly twisted in a way that made his heart skip a beat.



“We have two days left. I need to check my mail and buy groceries. You need to go see that Maynard is going a good job at the Book Hive and pick up those Egyptian souvenirs you ordered.”



“Let’s do them together then—-I owe you lunch at the very least, and we’ll collect your prize along the way,” he offered, rising from the chair on the deck. Miss Chocolate slipped into his arms and hugged him, her eyes scanning the little cove.



“It’s been so good. I’m not looking forward to going back—“ she whispered softly. Mr. Peppermint’s grip around her tightened in a fierce hug that he gentled after a moment.



“Nothing changes when we do. I have no intention of giving you up, and I don’t care if it pits the entire Shop against us. “ Carefully he cradled her face and locked his eyes on hers. “Understand?”



“Understood,” she murmured, her eyes bright and trusting. They held their gaze a moment longer, and then self-consciously Miss Chocolate laughed and looked down at herself. “I need to go change.”



“I need to supervise that,” Mr. Peppermint told her quickly. “It’s standard procedure.”



Cocking an eyebrow at him, Miss Chocolate turned and slunk down the ladder into the cabin. “You and your regulations.”



He didn’t reply, but his grin promised mischief as he followed her down.



***




Two hours later, the Bohemian was once again berthed at Grace Marina and the midday sun promised to be fierce. Miss Chocolate settled back in the driver’s seat of the Miata and adjusted the rearview mirror. Mr. Peppermint was in the passenger seat, slightly tense, his eyes hidden by sunglasses.



“What first?”



“Henderson’s the furthest point out, so let’s go there and work our way back. I’d like to make it home in time for an early dinner,” Miss Chocolate told him as she pulled out and onto the road. Mr. Peppermint nodded.



“Sounds like an excellent plan.”



They drove, chatting of minor things, and moving at a fair clip along the Fifteen. When they pulled into Henderson, Miss Chocolate slowed a bit and took the top down off the car. She grinned as the breeze blew her hair around, and enjoyed Mr. Peppermint’s slightly irritated expression. “Oh stop—I thought you’d like a convertible!”



“Convertibles make head shots too easy,” he replied in a dour voice. Startled, Miss Chocolate looked over at him as she took the turn onto Ojai Street.



“Are you serious?”



“I was in second grade when John Kennedy was assassinated. It made an impression,” was his terse reply. Miss Chocolate pulled the little car up in front of the coffee shop and said nothing as they climbed out, but she did hit the button to close the car top. Mr. Peppermint waited for her to come around to the sidewalk then gestured to the coffee shop.



“Now?”



“Humor me,” he replied in a pleasanter voice. Shrugging, Miss Chocolate stepped inside. They took a booth at the glass window and looked over across the street at the Book Hive. When they’d ordered and the waiter had slouched off, Mr. Peppermint spoke again, his voice very soft. “I’ve been shot at twice. Once was on the job a long time ago in LA—I was processing a scene when a sniper on a building decided to scare up the neighborhood with a few bullets.”



“Bad,” Miss Chocolate announced, her pretty mouth pursing up. Mr. Peppermint nodded. He breathed in, and slid his right hand across the Formica counter to take hers. His fingers brushed along her wrist in a gentle stroke, and she clasped his palm trustingly.



“The second time, in Minnesota, was personal.”



Miss Chocolate said nothing, but her entire attention focused on him and she sat very still in the booth. Mr. Peppermint hesitated, his gaze down on their entwined fingers. “I fell in love with a woman. A married woman. She didn’t want to leave her husband and things . . . “



“ . . . Got complicated,” Miss Chocolate finished softly.



Mr. Peppermint nodded regretfully. “Very. I took her out one last time, tried to persuade her, but she laughed at me.”



The waiter came back with their coffee; it sat untouched while both of them waited for the man to go away. After he did, Mr. Peppermint resumed, his voice huskier now.



“We were at a park, in the semi-darkness. We . . . fought. Just verbally, but things were said . . . and then—I heard the bullet.”



Miss Chocolate’s fingers tightened on his; she still said nothing, watching him. Mr. Peppermint cleared his throat.



“It missed me, passing over my shoulder and hit her. Right in the throat. Ripped open her carotid and the wave of blood splashed over me . . . “ he shook his head, eyes staring down, his brows drawing together.



“Grissom---“ Miss Chocolate murmured urgently, her fingers tightening on his. He looked up, his eyes the bleakest shade of blue she’d ever seen.



“Michelle bled out in three minutes. I stayed with her, and took a bullet in my thigh while I tried to drag her to safety. The police picked up the gunman at the same time the ambulance reached us, and it was her husband. He never said which one of us he was trying to kill.”



“I’m sorry,” Miss Chocolate said automatically. For a moment they sat holding hands in the shop, neither of them focused on anything at all beyond each other.



Gently, Miss Chocolate let her grip soften, and circled her fingertips along the heel of his palm, her strokes gentle and steady. The slight pressure along his pulse point seemed to calm him, and Mr. Peppermint exhaled slowly.



“Sometimes I remember things at the wrong moment. Sometimes I relive moments of my past, Sara. I kept my distance because for a long time I assumed it was the only way to cope with these memories.”



She nodded. “And that’s why you work for the Shop?”



Mr. Peppermint looked up at her, his expression neutral. “I work for the shop because I let Michelle bleed out.”



“No.”



“Yes. I lay there with her on the grass of Painter Park and watched her life bubble away, Sara. I should have, could have done something and didn’t. Because of that, I can’t be trusted with anyone else’s life but my own, and that’s why I work with the Shop. Here, we’re all loners.”



Slowly, strangely, Miss Chocolate smiled.



She let her fingers circle along Mr. Peppermint’s wrist, and then back down along his lifeline, stopping in the middle of his palm before she spoke.



“Okay, let me tell you something; we have something uncommon in common. Something statistically and spiritually rare, Mr. Peppermint. It’s a link between us that I saw from the first time I looked for it, and it’s in full force even now. Look down.”



A little startled, he did. Miss Chocolate smoothed out his hand and ran a finger down a crease in his palm that extended from his ring finger to his wrist, paralleling his lifeline at one point. “A clearly defined line of Fate. One that extends through the Girdle of Venus, the Heart and Head lines as well. Do you know how unusual that is?”



Intrigued despite himself, he shook his head. Miss Chocolate held up her right hand and he looked at it, then back down to his own hand: the same line was there, unmistakable and deep. She kept her gaze on him. “Only a half a percent of the population has it. Rarer than negative blood types or albinism, the true Line of Fate could be explained away as some sort of genetic anomaly, but it’s more than that. It’s the mark of a person destined for mysterious purposes.”



Over his skepticism, Mr. Peppermint kept listening. Miss Chocolate took his hand and laid hers against it, her warmth to his coolness, the press of her palm strong. “I never believed it either . . . until now. Five years ago, while processing a scene, I broke up a belated domestic dispute between a husband and wife. She shot him and he died. Listen to me—“ Miss Chocolate intoned, her voice oddly husky. “--She shot him over my shoulder and hit his neck. He bled to death.”



Mr. Peppermint stared at her, caught again; that odd intense connection that made the rest of the world fade out of focus.



“Coincidence . . . “ he murmured, but his words had no emphasis to them.



Miss Chocolate slowly arched an eyebrow at him, then looked down at their entwined hands. “Ask me what her name was.”



Mr. Peppermint said nothing, but his fingers tightened on hers, and at that very moment, a small temblor rattled the coffee shop, making the two mugs jitterbug across the table and crash onto the floor as the ceiling lights swayed and patrons murmured in alarm.



Miss Chocolate and Mr. Peppermint faintly smiled at each other.



***




It took the last of the tape to fasten the shoebox to the underside of the shelf, and Ecklie growled to himself when it folded over and stuck to itself. He wiped the back of his hand across his forehead and shot another quick look around but the coast was clear.



He took a breath and thought of Melanie waiting at home, of the baby inside her. More money would help, hell yes. Nobody in the world would deny that.



The lab had smoke detectors anyway, and clearly marked exits. They had a budget and the chemical storage room wasn’t on the main hallway, so nobody would get hurt.



Probably.



Hell, half the chemicals here probably wouldn’t even burn. It might go off and do nothing more than smoke the place out and the laugh would be on Bruce Eiger, Ecklie hoped. That would be hilarious—to find out that his big plot would be nothing more than a dud.



Nevertheless. Ecklie finished taping the shoebox, then closed the door and locked it, his latex covered fingers fumbling with the key. He peeled off the gloves, shoved them deep in his mop bucket and slowly pushed it away from the closet, trying not to hurry.



The gloves went out with the mopwater, down the decomp drain.



When he reached the sanitation office he replaced the key in the storage box, punched out on the time clock and left, his steps getting faster as he moved away from the lab. Ecklie checked his watch, then reached for his cell phone.



For a long, anxious moment he held it, then hit a button on the speed dial. It rang once, and then he cut it off and closed his eyes.



Ecklie thought of Melanie again.





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