The Beauty of Bucharest – Clean Up Crew Thriller #1

Chapter One
The Shifting of Paint Cans


“I’ll just pull up front and drop you off,” Dan told his wife. “It’s raining and you’re too sweet to get wet. You’ll melt.” It was early December in Denver and by all rights it have been snowing. But a freak warm front had kept the temperature in the forties for the past several days and when the precipitation came, it did so in the form of a drenching rain.

Nicole smiled at his cheesy sentiment. “You weren’t worrying about me being wet when you joined me in the shower this morning,” she said, her voice husky and teasing. Dan looked at his drop-dead gorgeous wife and wondered, probably for the ten-millionth time, what he’d done right to win her. The best explanation he’d ever heard was from a Buddhist friend who’d said he’d probably stored up a bunch of karma points in previous lifetimes.

He pulled Nicole’s Lexus into the fire zone in front of the Home Depot and stopped as close to the overhang as he could get. “Thanks, honey,” Nicole said. She blew him a kiss, then jumped out and ran into the store. Dan watched her all the way through the door, grinning as he marveled at her perfect butt, as well-formed at 41 as it had been when he’d first met her at 21, then looked for a parking space. Must be a big sale on nuts and bolts, he thought, seeing that the closest vacant space was three-quarters of the way to the other end of the lot.

Dan Porter loved retirement. He knew he loved it, because at least three times a day, he said, “I love being retired.” He said it that often, of course, because he was trying to convince himself that it was the truth.

Oh, there were plenty of things about it to love. He had all the money he needed. He’d built his software company from the ground up, starting out on his own at age 26, with a clear vision, a ton of skill, and the ability to recognize great people to work for him.  He’d worked his ass off, and it quickly paid dividends.

There had been sacrifices as well. The first ten years had seen him work so many hours, so many days and weeks and months without pause, that there was no time or energy to invest into another person. He lived as a bachelor, or more accurately, a man married to his job, until he was 36. That year, something magical happened. He’d been out to dinner, a working dinner, of course, when he happened to notice a woman. She was so beautiful… no, it was far more than just beauty. He eventually realized it was her eyes. He’d never seen two eyes bluer, more perfectly shaped, but it was even more than that. The eyes spoke of a strength and wisdom that did not show itself in women of her age. Dan guess she was at least ten years his junior. Those shimmering eyes captivated him so that as he sat and ate, trying to focus on the meeting that was supposed to be the reason for the dinner, he found himself imagining odd, foreign things. He imagined waking up next to this woman for the rest of his life. He imagined letting her squeeze his hand so hard in the delivery room that he might need x-rays after their child was born. He imagined sitting on a beach, watching the sunset next to this woman when they were old, and he was fat and maybe bald.

The problem was that she didn’t seem to notice that he was in the same restaurant. She’d been seated with a man who seemed every bit as enchanted with her as he realized he was himself. And, Dan had to admit, that at least as far as looks went, he was no match for her date. The man’s olive complexion and dark wavy hair, matched with some very obvious muscles that Dan’s many hours behind desks did not produce, put him in another league. And as far as the woman, well, she was several leagues above anyone Dan had ever known.

He’d found it odd, and perhaps the first hint of his karmic surplus, that the following week another meeting brought him back to the same restaurant, and this time, the woman was there again, dining alone. She seemed oblivious to him as she sipped champagne while awaiting her appetizer. He’d glanced at his watch several times before realizing that the distributor he’d hoped would pick up a new title with which his group was nearly finished was in fact stiffing him. Always one to turn rain into rainbows, he boldly stepped up to the woman’s table.

“Are you alone tonight?” he asked.

She’d been mid-sip and was forced to nod and offer a close-lipped “Mmm-hmm.”

“Well, it appears my meeting didn’t show, and I think my table is a little better than yours. You wouldn’t consider joining me, would you?”

“God, I thought you’d never ask,” she said, extending a slim and perfectly manicured hand. “Nicole Jacks,” she said.

Dan took her hand, noting the absence of any rings on the third finger of either hand and, to his own surprise but apparently not Nicole’s, kissed it. “Dan Porter. Damn glad to meet you.”

Her laugh was intoxicating, and she grabbed her clutch and her drink and moved to his table.

During the course of their meal, Dan had mentioned Nicole’s dashing young date from the week before. She had smiled enigmatically and said almost offhandedly, “You don’t have to worry about seeing him again.”

That meal had been twenty years ago and marked the first night of a relationship that had blessed him with two children, both now in college, and the woman of his dreams to share his life. He’d continued to build his business, putting in slightly less hours, and she’d stayed at home with the kids until they were old enough to be left alone without fear of them starting too many fires, at which point she informed Dan that she would really love to return to her job at Clean Up Crew, a business with franchises all over the world that specialized in removing the gore after crime scenes and suicides. Dan had always thought it a little gruesome, but Nicole was front office, not front lines, and it afforded her a chance to travel frequently, as she assisted and advised at the many locations in the US, Europe, and Asia. This had allowed Dan to focus a little more on the kids during their teen years, as well as helm his own business through some tricky years.

Now he was retired. He was nominally still the owner of the company, but he no longer went to the office. No longer took the meetings. No longer solved the crises. And though in his most honest moments he realized that he was bored out his skull, every time he thought of Nicole, he told himself that he loved being retired.

Together they’d written a wonderful life story. Unfortunately, the title of the present chapter of that story was “Dan Is About To Get Soaked.” He drove carefully down the lane in the crowded parking lot until he had almost reached the spot he’d spied. Just as he was preparing to turn into it, a little Toyota Corolla appeared out of nowhere and literally screeched into the spot. Dan felt his blood pressure rise measurably and gave the young couple a cold look as they bounded out of the car, celebrating like they’d just defeated Hitler or something. He considered rolling down the window and telling them exactly what he thought of them, but for all the years he put in heading up his company, he’d never quite developed the killer instinct that verbally assaulting a pair of millennials over a usurped parking spot required, and instead he just continued down the lane, finally finding another open spot. If he’d gone any farther away from the store, he’d have actually had to pull back onto the highway, and his blood pressure notched up a little more. Deciding to deal with his frustration through a display of passive-aggression, he turned the Lexus hard to pull into the spot.

When he did, he heard something thump in the trunk and thought to himself, She must still have those paint cans back there. Better check and make sure there’s no mess. He killed the engine, pulled the keys out and his hood up, and stepped into the rain, which had lightened to a drizzle, but was still cold. Perfect, he muttered as he walked toward the trunk, still angry at the Corolla punks, as he was now calling them in his mind.

He reached the back of the black Lexus and pushed the trunk button. As expected, the paint cans had toppled over, but not, as it turned out, due solely to his sharp turn. The turn had, actually, caused the body of a man who looked to be in his thirties, and possibly of Middle Eastern origin, with a very neat bullet hole in his forehead, to roll just enough to bump the paint cans, knocking them askew. Through the thin plastic drop cloth in which the man had been wrapped, Dan could see his still open brown eyes, cast upwards toward the bullet hole.

Dan quickly slammed the trunk shut, forgetting to check if the paint had leaked out of the cans. He found himself gasping for air, as if he’d been gut-punched, and he looked around to see if anyone else had been close enough that they might have possibly seen the same thing he had. In fact, there was no one, except the Corolla punks, who had almost reached the store, but were still laughing and pointing back at him. Near enough to annoy, but not enough to see into Nicole’s trunk. At this point, their antics were lost on Dan anyway, as his mind was ground zero of a mushroom cloud of fear, confusion, and revulsion. Stirred in among all of that was his survivor’s instinct, which had served him well in the leaner early years of business, and was kicking in now to tell him to walk away from the car and into the Home Depot to find Nicole.

The walk from one end of the soaked parking lot to the other seemed to take an hour, all the more so as the rain ratcheted back up to full downpour as he dragged his feet across the pavement. He finally reached the overhang and stepped out of the deluge. He left his hood up, in answer to some primal nagging from within that insisted it would be smart to keep his face hidden. He wandered several aisles before spotting Nicole as she looked through the Depot’s selection of bathroom sink fixtures. She waved to him as he approached and said, “I can’t decide between these three.” She pointed to her choices, and he reached out and grabbed her hand. She turned quickly to look at him, an expression of concern on her face. “Are you all right? You’re ashen. You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

He tried to speak, but for a moment could only manage a random series of grunts and stammers. Nicole’s face grew more serious.

“Are you having a stroke?” she asked, already pulling her phone from her purse to call 911.

Dan shook his head and finally managed to whisper, “Trunk.”

“What?” she asked, her expression softening. “Did you say ‘trunk’? Always thinking about my ass, Daniel. Really!”

Dan mutely shook his head, stammered a few more times, then managed, “Lexus trunk.”

Nicole’s face changed yet again, but this time her expression was almost a mirror of one he’d remembered seeing on their son and daughter’s faces when they’d, either literally or figuratively, been caught with their hands in the cookie jar. “What… about… it?” she asked, putting a beat of hesitation between each word.

Dan looked at her with an expression of his own, one that conveyed the question, “Are you serious right now?”

For several seconds, they just looked at one another. Finally, Nicole abandoned the bathroom fixtures and said, “I guess we need to talk.”