Peter beat a hasty retreat out of Louis’ office and to the elevator. He pressed the button for the garage and then juggled the box while trying to fish his car keys out of his pocket. He felt relieved as he drove out of the garage and onto the street, glad to be done with that. He glanced down at the box on the seat beside him. Maybe he wasn’t so done. And the next part wasn’t going to be fun either.
He made a split second decision and took the next left. This had been Clint’s idea after all. If the man thought they should dig through all the evidence against Peter looking for some fingerprints, then he could very well help do it.
He parked the car on the street outside Clint’s apartment and got out, carrying the box. He took the elevator up to Clint’s floor and knocked on his apartment door. He heard hasty footsteps and then the door was flung open a little violently. Clint looked at hi, disappointed.
“Oh. It’s you.”
“Gee, thanks.” Peter pushed passed him into the apartment and dumped the box on the coffee table. “It’s good to see you too.”
“Sorry.” Clint rubbed a hand over his face and shut the door. “I was hoping you were someone else.”
Peter studied him. “Nikki?”
He frowned. “How did you know?”
Peter chuckled wryly. “The number of times I waited anxiously for Layla? I know what it looks like.” He sat down and got comfortable. “So what? You two have a fight?”
There was a pause as if Clint was considering telling Peter to mind his own business, but instead he just shook his head and started to pace. “No. I mean yes, sure we did about a week about but we sorted it out. Pretty much. But now I don’t have any idea where she is. We were supposed to meet up at her house earlier today and she wasn’t there. I waited over an hour. She doesn’t answer her phone. I even called Vanessa from her label and she has no idea where she is either.”
“You’re not worried something’s wrong are you?”
“No, not exactly. I mean if there’d been an accident or she was in the hospital the news would have been online by now and I’ve been checking for it.”
“So maybe she just forgot your plans then,” said Peter. He pulled the box closer to him, tossed the lid aside and started to remove the stacks of paper. “Maybe she went for a spa day or something and turned her phone off. It happens.”
Clint shrugged. “Maybe.” He glanced down at the papers. “These from your lawyer?”
“Yes. We just have to go through them now and find the information on the fingerprints.”
Clint picked up a stack of papers, his expression distracted. Peter hesitated a second, battling with his better feelings and the finally relented. “You don’t have to go through these if you’re worried about Nikki. I can do it myself.”
Clint lowered the papers and grinned. “Thanks. Actually you know I think I’m going to go look for her.”
“How?” Peter frowned.
“You’re forgetting. I’m a paparazzo. It’s my job to find celebrities.” He pulled out his cellphone. “You can do your work here. There’s beer in the fridge and left over pizza.” He tossed Peter a set of keys. “Lock up if I’m not back when you’re done and just leave the keys under the mat.”
Clint left, shutting the front door behind him. Peter started sorting through the papers. He froze as he stared down at a transcript of his police questioning on the night of the murder. Reading over his own words, they sounded so foreign. He couldn’t remember anything he had said that night; it had all been a blur. He felt a clawing sick feeling in his gut.
He got up and got one of the beers out of the refrigerator and took a long drink before coming back to the papers.
Clint dialed as he drove, going through his regular list of contacts and informers, bouncers at clubs, salesclerks at stores, waiters at restaurants, putting the word out that he was looking for Nikki Steele. He considered whether or not he should call some of his fellow paparazzi but decided against it. Calling them up, asking specifically after Nikki, would make them think he was on to a big photo-op. He pocketed his phone and hoped someone would get back to him.
He knew he could easily be overreacting. Maybe Peter was right and Nikki had just forgotten she was supposed to meet him…but she’d never forgotten before. They’d talked on the phone just last night about their plans. Maybe he was feeling overanxious because things have been just a little off since she’d gotten back from the tour.
He checked the salon where he knew she usually got her hair done and a few clothes stores before driving back to her house a second time but there was no sign that she’d been there since he’d left. He signed in exasperation, feeling annoyed at Nikki for worrying him like this and annoyed at himself as he wasn’t able to shake off the suspicion this might somehow be his fault.
Mentally, he chided himself. Finding celebrities was his job, particularly when they didn’t want to be found. He could find Nikki if he just thought about the problem logically.
Nikki’s landline started to ring. He sat on the couch watching it, waiting for the silence so he could get back to thinking the problem through. It stopped after five rings, but then almost immediantly his cellphone started to buzz.
“Clint Morgan speaking?”
“Morgan, it’s Vanessa Francis. As I’m sure you know, I’m less than thrilled to be calling you, but I’m concerned about Nikki.”
“I haven’t found her yet.”
“My reason for calling,” said Vanessa, talking over him, “Was my people just brought me some news that I think explains her disappearance. Her father was arrested this morning.”
“Drug related from what I can tell. The news is still coming in.”
“So the rehab didn’t stick then.”
“It appears not,” agreed Vanessa absently. “Though it probably all came as a surprise to Nikki. It’s been three years since his last jail stint. They’re fairly close, or used to be. I suspect when she got the news, she did not take it very well. I’m surprised she didn’t bring it to you. A matter of trust perhaps,” she added disdainfully. Clint chose to ignore her.
“Do you know where she is now?”
“No and that’s why I’m calling you. However much I may dislike you personally, Nikki’s tour performed extremely well and her career has taken a turn for the better. Since she’s been drinking less and partying less, there’s been fewer negative stories in the papers. However while things are improving, this new image is far too young to put to the test at this stage.”
“You’re worried she’s out drinking somewhere,” said Clint acidly.
“Of course. Aren’t you?”
“No. I’m worried she’s out there alone with all this. I’m going to find her, but I couldn’t care crap about her image at this point.”
“Her career is very important to her Morgan. And for her sake it’s imperative to get her back home before too much damage is done. She cares about her work. She’s an artist. And it’s important for her sake that she doesn’t have to deal with a hurting career on top of family drama.”
“Give it a rest; you only care about the bottom line.”
“And you don’t? How much does she pay you exactly for all the ‘work’ you do for her? I understand from Nikki that you’ve recently started a ‘romantic’ relationship? Interesting.”
“Good-bye Vanessa.” He hung up angrily. For half a minute all he could do was see red. But he pushed past it and he forced himself to focus on the important issue: finding Nikki. Honestly Vanessa was probably right. Nikki probably was at a bar or club somewhere drinking. None of his informants had spotted her yet, but he knew which places were her favorite.
He hurried out of the house and got in his car. He checked three bars and two clubs without any luck. It was just after four o’clock and not all the locations were opened yet. As he reached a third club, and walked up to the front, he could see through doorway people starting to set-up but the hours on the door announced it still closed. A bouncer, who’d been leaning against the side of the door, stepped in front of him.
“Yeah. Sorry. I was just looking for someone, but I can see you’re still closed. Tell you what,” he fished a business card out of his pocket and handed it over. “If Nikki Steele comes by here once you open can you let me know? I’m a friend of Gregory, I know he works the door here on the weekends. You can call him, I’m sure he’ll vouch that I’ll make it worth your while.”
Clint noticed at the mention of Nikki’s name, the man’s eyes flickered.
“What is it?” Clint asked. The man looked down at the card and seemed involuntarily to look over his shoulder towards the door. “Is Nikki already in there?”
The man seemed to deliberate and then handed the card back. “This is way over more than my job is worth.”
“She is in there, isn’t she?” said Clint eagerly. “Look whatever it takes, I’ll pay it. I have to get in there.”
“No,” said the man, crossing his arms stubbornly. “I’m afraid I can’t do that sir.”
“Look I’m friend of hers and I need to talk to her. Here,” he fished out his wallet. “I’ve got three hundred; it’s yours, on top of which you can hold on to my cellphone while I’m in there. No camera, no phone; I’ll have nothing to record her or take pictures. All I can do is talk to her, and if she objects you can throw me right out.”
The man seemed to hesitate, looking down at the three hundred dollars. “I don’t know, my boss-”
“You can say I claimed to be from her label. I swear I won’t cause any trouble. If she doesn’t want to see me, I’ll leave immediately.”
There was a long heavy pause and then the man took the bills and pocketed them quickly. He pulled a set of keys out and unlocked the door.
“Thanks,” said Clint and slipped in.
He looked around the club. It was large and mostly empty. There was an empty dance floor, a DJ setting up, tables being scrubbed, someone was mopping in the corner. The only sound was the occasional exchange from the employees and the scrapping of chairs as they were moved and adjusted. He glanced towards the bar and saw Nikki. She was perched on a barstool, her shoulders hunched, resting her head heavily in one hand, her back turned to him. The bartender was a few feet off, cleaning off some glasses.
Clint approached her quietly, taking the seat beside her. She jumped at the sound of his chair scrapping against the floor and turned towards him. She stared at him for a minute in disbelief and then sighed and pushed her drink away.
“I guess you’re here to scold me for going out drinking at a club, even a closed one.”
Clint looked at her for a moment and then flagged down the bartender. “I’ll have what she’s having, and bring her another one.”
Nikki blinked. “Seriously?”
“Sometimes you just have to drink; image can rot.”
The drinks were brought over and he took a big gulp. “I was worried about you,” he said quietly, looking down at his glass.
“Vanessa told me about your dad.”
“It’s out? Vanessa’s heard? Perfect. I suppose it’ll be all over the tabloids tomorrow then. What else did she say?”
Clint hid a smile. Now that he wasn’t worrying about finding Nikki, he found her remarks almost amusing. “Not very much of importance…I’m sorry about your dad.”
“I just thought it would be different this time. That’s what he said.”
There was a long pause. “Is it terrible that I’m almost more upset about the fact that this will be all over the tabloids then I am that he could go to jail again?” she asked slowly, not meeting his eyes. “I should be upset about that and that he’s back on drugs but I just keep wishing I wouldn’t have to face the cameras and the press and all the other bull that comes with it all over again. I’m so tired of this. He does it again and again and-” She stopped short and gripped her glass tightly with one hand.
Clint reached over and took her other hand. “You’re father’s disappointed you Nikki. That gives you the right to feel whatever way you want to about it.”
Nikki smiled at him and then tilted her head in curiosity. “How did you find me here anyways?”
“Went everyplace I could think of that you like.”
“I know the owner so they let me in, but I’m surprised you got inside.”
“I except to be reimburse three hundred bucks,” he said with a grin.
Nikki laughed. “Thank you for coming.”
“I feel better with you here. I would have gone to you first but…”
“You thought I wouldn’t approve of the drinking your troubles away approach?”
“Something like that.”
He pulled off his blazer and tossed it onto the barstool next to him. “Come on. Let me show you how you’re really supposed to get drunk.”