From If Not For You by J L Wilson
Setup: A threatening letter meant for Max Lerner was delivered to Layla Whitford, throwing these two strangers together. Max and Layla meet to discuss who might want them to meet, and why, but can’t figure it out. Max decides that he might be putting her in danger, so he arranges for a security guard … just until the critical merger he’s involved in can be finalized.
Max barely noticed his drive home. He parked his car in the garage at his apartment building and took the elevator to the lobby to get his mail, then continued on to the ninth floor. He walked into the empty apartment and looked around the room, unconsciously comparing it with Layla’s comfortable, lived-in place. Max got a beer from the kitchen then came back to the living room to sort his mail.
The room’s window faced south and Max realized he was staring out at the lights in the distance, wondering where her house was. Shit. That woman was having far too much effect on his life. He sipped some beer and glanced down at the letter in his hand.
He knew immediately what it was. Plain white envelope with the flap taped shut and his name and address block-printed on the front. Max set the envelope down and opened his cell phone. Jason answered on the first ring. “I got one at home,” Max said.
“Did you open it?”
“I’ll be there in ten minutes.”
Max closed the phone and left the letter on the coffee table. He went to the window and stared out into the night. Who hated him enough to go to all this trouble? And, more to the point, who hated Layla? She didn’t seem to have an enemy in the world. Even her ex-husband sounded like he still loved her.
Eight minutes later Max buzzed Jason into the building and a minute after, opened his apartment door for his old friend. Jason stalked across the living room to the coffee table as though drawn by a magnet. “Who knows your home address?” he demanded as he picked up the envelope by one corner.
Max considered it. “No one. I’m unlisted in the phone book and I’m not in the corporate directory at work.”
“Come on, Max,” Jason snapped. “Think.” He walked into the small kitchen, holding the envelope out in front of him.
Max recognized the concern in Jason’s voice. “I just moved here a few years ago,” Max finally said thoughtfully. “You know my address, Mabel knows, and a couple women I used to date. Usually I went to their apartments.” He considered it then walked to a small desk near the window and pulled out the list he’d compiled last night. He crossed off several names. “That narrows it down to five women. That’s assuming it’s a woman involved in this.”
Jason held the envelope over the sink and edged a steak knife under the flap. With one quick motion, he flipped it open. “You have any tongs or tweezers?”
Max went into the master bathroom then came back and handed a set of tweezers to Jason. “There won’t be fingerprints,” Jason muttered as he carefully extracted the letter. “There weren’t any on the other ones. I don’t why I’m going through all this shit.” He shook the folded letter carefully. Something small and white fluttered out and landed in the sink. Jason opened the paper and they both read the single line.
See you at the Social tomorrow.
Max peered into the sink. “What’s that?”
Both men stared at the white coil, puzzled, until Max said, “Oh shit.”
It was a small, white, curly ring of hair.
Max grabbed his cell phone then cursed. “I don’t have her on speed dial,” he said desperately, searching for the phone book.
Jason quickly recited her number. Max looked at him in surprise and Jason shrugged. “She’s a client now.”
Max almost fainted with relief when Layla answered her phone.
“Layla, this is Max.” He realized he was shouting. “It’s Max,” he said, calmer.
“Hey there, what’s up? Charlie and I were just playing gin rummy and he’s beating my butt. How dare you get me a guard guy who can beat me at gin!” She laughed and belched. “Oops, too much beer. Maybe that’s why he’s beating me.”
Jason gestured for the phone. Max numbly handed it over. “Hey Layla, this is Jason.” He tapped the “conference” button on the phone.
Layla’s voice rang out in Max’s kitchen. “You’re working overtime tonight. I was just telling Mr. Lerner that it’s no fair getting me a guard who can beat me at cards.”
“I’ll remember that,” Jason said. “Listen, I’ve got a question for you.”
“Ask away.” They heard noises and she said, “Gotcha! I just won a hand, finally.”
“Where do you get your hair cut?” Jason asked casually.
“Your hair? Who cuts it?”
“Why, do you want to emulate my sexy hairdo?” She laughed and belched again. “Damn, sorry. Beer makes me burp. Let’s see, I get it cut at the Clip and Curl, over on Dodd and Marquette in Eagan. Why?”
“When did you get it cut last?”
Max could hear the wariness in her voice now. “Why? Is someone seeking hair for a voodoo doll?”
“Just humor me,” Jason said.
“Layla?” Max prompted.
“Just a minute, I’m thinking. Oh wait, it’s you again. What is this, a conference call?”
“Layla!” Max shouted, exasperated.
“Okay, okay. Let’s see, today’s Friday…it was a week ago Tuesday. Marlette only works on Monday and Tuesday. I remember because when I came out somebody had snapped off my car antenna.” She belched again. “Sorry. It really pissed me off because Bug antennas are pricey, you know? And just a few days before that, I had to take it to the shop because the radiator hose got disconnected and I almost fried the engine before I saw the stupid little light flashing. So I had to go back to the Bug shop again. It’s not close to work or home.” She made a disgruntled noise. “It sucked up a whole afternoon to get things fixed. If I didn’t know better I’d say I was cursed. But wait—I am cursed, aren’t I? At least that’s how it’s starting to feel.”
Jason nodded. “Okay. That’s all we needed to know. You guys have fun.”
“We’re going to watch a Harrison Ford video later. Charlie thinks HF is cool too. Did you know they changed the weather forecast? It’s supposed to rain tomorrow. ‘Passing showers’ they called it. It’ll probably be a tornado.” She made a rude noise. “Damn weathermen.”
“Mark is coming over at nine tomorrow morning, so don’t stay up too late.”
“Does he play cards?”
Jason smiled. “I don’t know. I suppose so.”
“Maybe I can talk him into poker. See you guys later.”
“Good night, Layla,” Max said softly as Jason closed the phone.
“At least now we know,” Jason said. “Antenna snapped off? Radiator hose? She mentioned today that her tires had been punctured. It all adds up.”
“What?” Max stared out the window at the southern suburbs, willing himself to see Layla’s house.
“Someone is out to get her too.”