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Al Giraud, Private Investigator, was sitting in the bar of the Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel, eating miniature pretzels and drinking a Samuel Adams dark ale, contemplating life and the fact that he couldn't have a cigarette while waiting for the always late woman in his life.
It had been nine months since he had last smoked. Enough time to give birth to a pack of Camels, he thought, resignedly crunching down another pretzel. That was Marla for you. How come he'd let this woman have so much influence on his life? He glanced down at his old, faded jeans, short-sleeved plaid shirt, scuffed boots and the ancient snakeskin belt with the rearing mustang silver buckle, bought decades ago in his hometown of New Orleans. Then he grinned. At least she hadn't yet managed to change his style.
Al had become a P.I. the hard way. The easier way would have been to become a criminal.
He was raised by his mother in one of the poorer parts of town, along with her five other boys. Somehow she managed to keep them out of trouble, though later he wondered how. It would have been easy for him to drift over to the other side into a criminal way of life. "The easy life," his friends called it temptingly. He'd had a few scrapes with the law, hung in there, though, and finished high school, got a job immediately to help with the family's finances. Then one of his brothers was killed in a drive-by shooting. Al's sorrow and rage was such he wanted to go right out and kill the guy who'd done it, he wanted revenge so bad it hurt. His mom talked him out of it. "Two wrongs don't make anything right, son," she had told him through her tears. "Just get out there and try to do some good."
The only way Al could figure out how to do good was either to become a minister or a cop. He was definitely more suited for the cop role. He was street-smart, athletic, ambitious and angry, with knee-jerk responses. He made his way up through the ranks to homicide detective, married, divorced.
The day came when Al had finally had enough of the cop's life: the hours, the harshness, constantly seeing the seedy side with its tragedies and traumas. He took early retirement, packed his meager possessions in a small duffel bag, kissed his beloved mother good-bye, threw a raucous farewell party for his three remaining brothers and their wives and departed for L.A. "The land of opportunity."
He had set himself up in a second-floor office on Sunset, with a glass door embossed with his name in gold and the words private investigator--with all work confidential in small print underneath. Purple bougainvillea trailed over the balcony, the busy traffic zoomed by on Sunset along with a constant parade of folk: smart businessmen, transients, hookers, record execs, dudes and gorgeous California girls. Enough to keep his mind off work, certainly.
He made contacts in the LAPD, in the District Attorney's Office, in a couple of the legal firms, and work began to trickle his way. Divorces, fraud, embezzlement. Women who wanted to know what theirhusbands were up to. And men who wanted to know if they were being followed, and who was trying to kill them. Then he hit the big time with the case of a prominent man accused of attempting to murder his wife. Al was able to prove that the timing was impossible and the guy got off. Suddenly, he found himself in demand.
The work was risky, often dangerous, but he was from the streets, he'd mingled with guys like this since he was a kid. Until his brother's murder he had called them his "friends." Now he was definitely on the side of right.
Al worked hard for his clients. Some were guilty, some not: he just did his job and presented the evidence.
He lived alone in a small house in the Hollywood Hills--that is when he wasn't in situ at her Wilshire Boulevard apartment with his lady love, Marla Cwitowitz--blond, thirties, stylish, sexy, good-looking and, although she looked like a movie actress, a professor of law at Pepperdine.
They had met at a grand Hollywood party given to celebrate the not guilty verdict in the trial of a prominent actor accused of strangling his ex-girlfriend. Al had traced the actor's past as well as the girlfriend's. Just to be sure. Dogged as Sherlock Holmes, he had visited their hometowns, gotten the scoop on them, found a stepfather accused of abusing the woman as a child. He had also found evidence that the stepfather was in L.A. the night of the killing--and witnesses who said that he was insanely jealous.
The defense took over from there and made mincemeat of the prosecution, casting full doubt on the stepfather. There was no way a jury could convict the actor with such testimony.
Al was by way of being the star of this party. For the occasion he wore a jacket along with his frayed jeans and plaid shirt, but he was uncomfortable in the marble halls of Hollywood filmdom.
He was standing by the window looking out at the floodlit fountains and elaborate terraced gardens, nursing his second good whiskey and wondering how soon he could leave when a velvety voice from behind him said, "Hello, Al Giraud."
He turned and looked at one of the loveliest women he had ever seen.
"I've been waiting to be introduced, but no luck, so I'm introducing myself. Marla Cwitowitz. Professor of law at Pepperdine, ex-DA--and a great admirer of yours."
She was wearing red. Short, strappy, low-cut and sexy--and if he wasn't mistaken, expensive. Her golden-blond hair tipped her shoulder blades, flipping up gently as she put her head on one side, looking at him with laughing gray-green eyes. And her mouth was amazing, full with a cushiony underlip.
"So? Do I pass muster?"
He realized he was staring. "Excuse me, you took me by surprise." He held out his hand and she took it in both of hers.
"As you did me," she murmured.
They had gotten along famously from that moment--when they weren't fighting that is, and when she wasn't bugging him about becoming his partner. The idea of Marla as a detective was laughable. No one would ever take her seriously. She was too gorgeous--and from the other side of the tracks. A wealthy family, top schools, clever. Definitely not from the streets. Except she had been a DA for a couple of years, and you didn't do that in L.A. without seeing life at its rawest. Still, Al wanted to keep her away from all that.
"What the hell d'ya see in me? An uneducated bum, an ex-cop, a two-bit P.I.? A lovely woman like you?" he had asked her, the first time he made love to her.
Marla sighed, looking thoughtfully at him. Al Giraud's face was all angles and planes: razor-sharp cheekbones, beetling black brows over deep-set piercing blue eyes, a pugnacious jaw. He looked like a cartoon detective. Put a fedora on him and a necktie--he was Dick Tracy. In the plaid shirt and jeans, he should be propping up a cheap bar. In a suit, he could be running for office.