Jump the Gun: An Annabelle Starkey Mystery #1

Jump the Gun: An Annabelle Starkey Mystery #1

Meet Annabelle Starkey. A shrewd, sweet, and sexy Stephanie Plum without the Jersey girl attitude. She’s a one-man kind of girl who loves hats and shoes. Annabelle also loves movies. ...

About The Author

Zoe Burke

Zoe Burke is the author of the Annabelle Starkey mystery series, "Jump the Gun" and "No Gun Intended." She has ...

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

I love movies. They’re my passion, my great escape. Oh, sure, my life is okay—decent job, loving parents, friends. But I’ve always been the Joan Cusack character in Working Girl, playing the good sport and faithful sidekick while the leading lady Melanie Griffith lands the great job, the great man, the great life. I’m thirty-two and pretty enough—if you ignore my big ears—and smart enough, but all I’ve ever landed was on my feet. Dull guys wanted to move in. Exciting guys wanted to move on. I couldn’t seem to find my own perfect leading man.

When I met Mickey three weeks ago in Chicago at a national book convention, I liked him right away. He had Al Pacino eyes and a smile as crooked as Ellen Barkin’s, and I don’t know if you ever saw the movie, but when I looked at him I felt like I was smack dab in the middle of Sea of Love. It’s one of my all-time favorites, full of hot sex and edge-of-your-seat danger, and I had a sudden urge to meet him in a grocery store wearing nothing but a raincoat—you have to see the movie, one of Pacino’s top three. On Sunday, during the final long hours of the convention, we were each taking a break. I was sipping coffee standing up at one of those tall, chairless tables common at convention centers. Mickey had perched his sunglasses on his forehead and was talking on his cell phone when he noticed me. I smiled. He fixed his gaze on me while he finished his call, then snapped his  phone

shut and held out his hand. “Mickey Paxton.”

“Annabelle Starkey.”

He held my hand a little bit longer than a handshake, and when he let it go, he said, “Wow.”

“‘Wow’? Does that line usually work for you?” He laughed. “Don’t know, never used it before.” “Try another one.” I was still smiling.

“How about I tell you that I’m forty and I live in New York and I’m a sales director…”

“Whoa,” I interrupted, “how about instead we start with your favorite movie.”

He frowned. “Hmmm. Not sure. I guess The Year of Living Dangerously.”

Now I laughed. “Is that a warning?”

“I hope not.” He leaned toward me on the table. “I’d like to take you to Las Vegas with me. Tomorrow morning.”

I set my coffee cup down and raised my eyebrows. “Um, you think I’m an easy pick-up?”

He took a step back. “Oh, look, no, I’m sorry, that’s not it at all, I…”

“Well, I’m not. Buy me a drink first, before we get dangerous.” He smiled, that crooked smile. “You bet.”

# # #

We met that evening by the river at a quiet, upscale bar, one with overstuffed leather chairs and floor-to-ceiling windows. Mickey arrived first. He was waiting outside in front, on his phone again. “Got it. Looks like it will all be wrapped up tomorrow. They can handle the rest here.” Pause. He winked at me. “Roger that. I’ll stay under.” He dropped the phone in his pocket and put his hand on my shoulder. “Glad you’re here.”

“You’re ‘under’?” I asked. “What?”

“I heard you say that you’ll ‘stay under’?”

He put his hand back in his pocket. “Oh, that. Yeah, I’m under the gun, so to speak, to make sure some deals go through. You know, sales.”

I did know. I was the publicity manager for a San Francisco publisher of how-to-live-your-life and here’s-what-you-should-think books. But before I could ask him more about these deals, he smiled and directed me to the door, his hand on my back. “You look wonderful.” We walked into the bar.

By the time we finished that first drink, I was a goner. This man was not only gorgeous—piercing brown eyes, thick, dark hair, that mischievous smile—he knew how to listen. I was nervous and talking so much that I even told him all about my cat, Bonkers, and how he likes to take baths. Mickey had me believing that he was interested in everything I had to say.

We left after the second drink. Mickey hailed a cab and I climbed in, but he didn’t. “I’ll pick you up at your hotel tomorrow morning. Nine sharp. We’re going to Las Vegas.”

“But what about the gun?” He flinched. “What gun?” “The one you’re under.”

He laughed. “Oh. I can handle that remotely. Cell phone. No problem. See you in the morning. Sleep tight.” Then the cab took off and Mickey walked the other way down the street, while I watched him out the back window. He hadn’t even kissed me. You should know that I had never done anything this adventurous, ever. Except for the time a few weeks before the Chicago trip when I called in sick at work four days in a row while I went to three movies a day. My decision to trust Mickey was mostly a gut thing—though I had never been to Vegas before and had always wanted to check it out. Mickey was a true gentleman. I already felt comfortable with him. I was ready to step out of my life and right into A Touch of Mink, hoping things would turn out as well for me as they did for Doris Day, and that my chance meeting with a stranger would change the course of my life, too.

# # #

My alarm was set for 7:30, but I woke up at 6:00 with a herd of buffaloes—right out of any classic western movie you can think of—stampeding around my stomach. I am used to them waking me up when I’m nervous. They’re kind of like annoying friends whose loyalty is so reliable that you overlook the fact that they usually make you feel nauseous.

I took a shower and washed my hair, dried it, and styled it with lots of goo and gunk. It’s cut pretty short, but not as short as K. D. Lang’s. By the time I finished messing with it, I looked like I could be a band member with Kiss if I just applied a lot of heavy white makeup and black eye shadow. So I took another shower and washed it again, dried it, and fluffed it up, silky and natural looking, like a healthy Catholic girl. Then I took another shower and let it air dry and put on a hat. I look good in hats, and this was a cute little cloche, like the one Angelina Jolie wore in The Changeling, only red. It did a good job of hiding my oversized ears—they’re the main reason I have a lot of hats. I’ve tried longer hair, but it’s straight and fine and my ears poke through it without any problem at all.

At 8:30, I went downstairs and checked out, then sat down in the hotel coffee shop and ordered a double espresso and a corn muffin and picked up a Tribune someone had left behind. I was reading the funnies when Mickey walked in. He smiled. “Nice hat.”

# # #

Even now, when I think about Mickey, I have to catch my breath. I told him on the plane to Las Vegas, when he reached over and held my hand—which, in case you didn’t know, is about the sexiest thing a guy can do—that I’m not a woman who suddenly gets on airplanes with handsome men that she’s known for less than a day. He said, “Hmm! You think I’m handsome!” I must admit, though, that I did somewhat keep my head. When we got to the Chicago airport, I insisted on buying my own ticket. I didn’t want to come off as a version of Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, although she did end up with a great wardrobe, not to mention Richard Gere.

Our plane landed in Las Vegas right on time—which I took as a good sign, since I had never landed on time anywhere in my life—and it was a quick cab ride to the Strip. I noticed Mickey checking his phone a lot, and he looked around at  everything all the time—walking through the airport and standing in the taxi line. He even looked out the back window of the cab a few times on the way to the hotel.

I touched his knee. “I’m thinking I should be calling you John, instead of Mickey.”

He frowned. “And that would be because…?”

“You’re acting like you’re on the run, like Johnny Depp playing John Dillinger in Public Enemies. Did you see it? Got lousy reviews, but I loved it.”

He chuckled at that, grabbed my hand, and kissed it.

# # #

Mickey had booked us a suite at the Royal Opal Resort, and we checked in around 2:30. Like I said, this was my first trip to Las Vegas, and I’ve got to tell you, I don’t ever want to go back. The glitz, the kitsch—it’s not a city, it’s an amusement park where people lose their life’s savings. The scope of the hotel made me more than a little uneasy. It took about thirty minutes just to find our room—first fighting our way through the gaming tables and then walking down endless halls to wrong elevator banks until we found the right one. We rode up surrounded by mirrors and Frank Sinatra singing “Fly Me to the Moon” and, at last, got off on the eighteenth floor and walked into the suite. Big bed, big basket of fruit, big mirror on the ceiling above the big bed, big screen television, big bottle of champagne.

Mickey dropped his bags, looked around, smiled at me, and said, “Hold on. I’ll be right back. Got to go to the lobby for a minute.”

He was out the door as fast as Matt Damon in any of the Bourne movies you can think of. The buffaloes in my stomach started grumbling—I was nervous. Maybe I had made a mistake. I thought about calling my friend Cassie again. She was housesitting Bonkers, and I had left her a message on my home answering machine the night before—she didn’t use her cell phone much—telling her I was off to Sin City with a complete stranger. Maybe I’d reach her this time.

Cassie liked to be in charge and never hesitated to say, “I shouldn’t tell you what to do, but here’s what you should do.” She was strong, with a physique toned by running the hills of San Francisco and regular yoga classes. She could be intimidating, and she knew it. Once she even told her boss to stop bossing her around because she had work to do. He fired her, and she asked me, “Now who’s going to run that place?” Cassie was indomitable, and I loved that about her.

I tried her again at my apartment, and then on her cell phone. No answer.

But I told myself not to panic. If Mickey was a psycho, he could have raped and murdered me in Chicago. I popped the bottle of bubbly and poured two glasses, then started munching on grapes. I opened my suitcase, wondering if I should unpack, but I didn’t want to appear too eager, so decided not to. I took off my hat and then opened and closed all of the drawers in the desk and the bureaus and the cupboards by the bar, inspected the stationery, read the Guest Services manual, flicked the wine glasses with my finger to see if they resonated, forgetting that I should have done that when they were empty. Then I swilled down the contents of one glass, and tapped that glass again. Yup. Good stuff. Both the glass and the bubbly.

Several minutes went by, probably about twenty. I drank the second glass of champagne and started to feel queasy. Mickey was taking his time. Was he some sort of gambling addict? Should I go find him? But what if he came back while I was looking for him? I could leave a note. Now my nervous buffaloes started stampeding again. Here I was in a movie, all right, but it wasn’t Sea of Love. It was starting to feel more like An Affair to Remember, when Deborah Kerr never meets Cary Grant at the top of the Empire State Building because she gets hit by a car.

I called Mickey on his cell phone, but he didn’t answer, so I left him a message—“Hi, um, where are you, anyway?” Then I tossed back my third glass. I was drinking the champagne too quickly, and it was making me burpy as well as drunk. I decided to lie down for a bit. The buffaloes drowned in the champagne, and I dozed off. I was dreaming I was riding on a train in the mountains, the train shimmying back and forth, when suddenly I was awake, and this potatohead guy was shaking me and yelling at me, “Yo! Bea! Bea! Show some life, why don’cha!”

I didn’t know who this jackass was. I jumped off the bed and grabbed the nearest deadly weapon, which happened to be a hotel ballpoint pen.

“Who the fuck are you and why are you in my room?” I pointed the pen at him. I hoped I sounded a lot braver than I felt. “Hey,  get a grip. I’m  a friend of Mickey’s.  He  wants   you

should come with me.”

“Yeah, well, I want I should stay here. Now get out.” I thrust the pen toward him but I was swerving and trying to back up at the same time. My legs weren’t working too well—turns out that knees really do knock in moments of terror.

“Aw, lady, if you don’t come with me, you’re gonna put me in a spot, and I don’t like bein’ in no spots.” Then he pulled a gun out of his pocket. I dropped the ballpoint.

I had never seen a gun up close before. Actually, I had never seen a gun before, except on TV or in a movie. I didn’t like it. He wasn’t pointing it at me yet, but he had started tossing it back and forth from one hand to another. Grinning at me. His teeth were yellow and a little crooked. I was suddenly very sorry that I had followed gorgeous Mickey Paxton to Las Vegas and that I had drunk three glasses of champagne. I had to pee. Badly. That’s when I thought, Ah! Maybe I can get away from this prick! “Fine,” I finally squeaked. “I’ll come with you. But first    I

have to…”

“Yeah, yeah. Just hurry it up.”

I grabbed my purse and started toward the bathroom door, but the fat, ugly creep put his hand on my arm to stop me and grabbed my purse. “Nice try, Bea.” He took my cell phone and put it in his pocket, then he fished around some more until he found my hard plastic glasses case. He turned it over and studied it, then dropped it back in. He gave my purse back to me. Then he went into the bathroom, pulled the phone off the wall, and tossed it into the suite. “Now, like I said, hurry it up.”

I figured that once I was in the bathroom, I could crawl out of the window and escape. It wasn’t until I walked in and closed the door that I remembered the window was probably ten times suicide-height up from the ground. So after I peed I turned on the water in the sink and washed my face and hands and brushed my teeth and swallowed three aspirin, one at a time, from the bottle in my purse to ward off any champagne headache. Then I sat down on the toilet and tried to think. There didn’t seem to be anything to do but to go with this goombah and try to get away from him once we were in the casino. I stood and picked up my purse, looking oh so calm when I came out.

Vamanos, Meatball.”

He rolled his eyes and took hold of my arm. We left the suite and walked to the elevator.

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