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Chapter One

Her back pressed tightly to the side of the building, Mystery looked down between her feet to the cracked pavement twelve floors below.

Never look down, never look down, the words screamed in her consciousness, as she slammed her head back against the wall. Mentally, she defied anyone to find themselves in a similar situation and knowingly prevent their gaze from looking downward.

Mystery forced her head to turn to the left-no exit there. Slowly, she turned her head to the right. The wind caught her long auburn hair and whipped it across her face effectively blinding her. While the temporary blindness allowed her to catch her breath, Mystery knew that she needed all her faculties in full operation to get through this mess.

Against her will, she pried the fingers of her right hand from the crevice into which she'd dug her fingernails. Careful not to lose contact with the granite under her hand, Mystery moved her hand slowly until she could quickly whip the hair back from her eyes. Just as quickly, she grabbed the side of the building.

Vision restored, the view hadn't changed nor had her chances of making it off the ledge improved. This would be a great time for a super hero to swoop down and carry her to safety, Mystery thought, as she inched her way back toward the window she'd recently exited.

As she continued her tortuous scramble across the side of the building, she tried to figure just how she'd gotten into this predicament this time. The answer was simple-it usually was. It was Brent. No, he hadn't forced her out on the ledge. That had been her own doing. She'd panicked. There she was snooping around Sandra Templeton's computer looking for heaven's knows what-Brent hadn't been that specific-and, like a lame amateur, had been caught in the act. The quickest escape seemed the window. It also appeared to be the most dangerous.

Once again she cursed her vulnerability to Brent Stevens' charm. She'd known he was trouble five years ago-his first day at the newspaper. When their boss, Charles Munson, introduced them Brent's first day on the job, every siren, bell, whistle and alarm sounded their warning signals to her. Then, Brent had taken her hand in his warm one, and the warnings were silenced. He smiled at her, and her knees weakened. He'd said hello, and her resolve melted.

Just thinking about it now brought it all back to her clearly. She shook her head; this was not the time for a trip down memory lane when a trip off the ledge might succeed in ending everything. Well, she'd avoided becoming totally entrapped in his spell for five years. She knew she could avoid it longer. It was just these little lapses in judgment that would find her swaying to his charm.

As Mystery inched her way across the ledge, she suddenly felt something wet and slippery beneath the shredded hose on her foot. Mystery's face screwed up as if she'd bitten into a sour lemon. What was this stuff oozing between her toes, she thought. Hesitantly, she slid further down the ledge, but her foot slipped on the ooze and sent her headlong hovering over the edge.

Flailing her arms in an attempt to regain her balance, Mystery teetered on precipice and watched the pavement rush up at her. The shoes she'd removed as soon as she'd safely landed on the ledge flew through the air to the pavement below. An exposed tip of iron left from the construction of the building caught the back of her skirt and stopped her flight. She threw herself back against the granite. As she panted in an attempt to restore normal breathing, Mystery looked skyward cursing the gods of genetics. Angrily, she thought of her father's large, unattractive feet which she'd inherited instead of her mother's tiny, petite feet. That inheritance just nearly cost her much more than the ability to buy cute, wispy sandals. It nearly cost her life. Big feet, she considered, and a narrow ledge do not match well.

Forget about genetics, Mystery thought, better to think about whether Sandra has vacated her office yet or not. She'd been stuck out on the ledge for what seemed to be a long time. Mystery could only guess at how long she'd been there, deciding it wasn't the best of logic to check her watch. It was amazing to her that no one seemed to notice a woman perched twelve floors above the street clinging to the side of a building.

Mystery took a big breath and started inching her way back toward the window. She hadn't moved far before her progress stopped. The piece of iron that snatched her skirt and stopped her from falling was now keeping her from reaching the window and safety. With the grace of an exotic dancer, Mystery began swiveling her hips side to side against the rough stone of the building.

The friction of her body against her building heated the granite and chaffed against her tender posterior. As she indelicately rocked side to side, she thought again about Brent's request. It had seemed so simple when he'd caught her in her office earlier-just a simple request to check the computers in the newspapers offices. All she had to do was look for anything that seemed out of place in the stored files.

Of course, Mystery hadn't considered just how many computers filled the offices at the time. There were computers for the reporters, bookkeepers, salesmen, graphics designers and layout technicians. However, all Brent had to do was just ask, and, as usual, Mystery was more than happy to comply. Impulsively, she'd decided to check Sandra's first.

Sandra Templeton was the advice columnist for the paper. She'd been there for about ten years, long before Mystery had been hired by Munson as an assistant. Mystery had never cared much for the leggy blonde, especially when Brent and Sandra had become embroiled in a steamy romance. Brent ended the romance, but Mystery knew that Sandra still carried a burning torch for him. Admitting it was probably just jealousy, Mystery secretly hoped she'd find something incriminating on Sandra's computer.

There hadn't been much of a chance. Within minutes after sitting down at Sandra's desk and logging onto the computer, Mystery heard Sandra coming down the hall. She'd searched desperately for a place to hide or a good excuse for being there. It was the desperation that caused her to slip out the open window to the ledge.

Mystery stopped for a moment and looked back down at the street. While not thrilled with her dangerous situation, it was becoming more tolerable. She certainly didn't relish the thought of popping back into Sandra's window. That would have been too humiliating, as well as requiring some sort of explanation. Explanations were in short supply today.

Again, Mystery thought of the cryptic conversation she'd had with Brent earlier. Just don't get caught, that was his only admonition to her after she'd foolishly agreed to check the computers for him. If she'd only considered the situation, it wouldn't have been unlikely for her, as his assistant, to run checks of all the computers. However, then the news of the checks would have run through the offices faster than a speeding bullet.

That reminded Mystery, where was her super hero now? Brent was probably sprawling in his office chair appearing every bit the publisher that he'd only a year earlier become when he bought the newspaper from Munson. Brent had plunked down every penny, nickel and dime for the down payment on the paper, but it had been his lifetime dream. When it came to dreams like that, the price doesn't matter, he'd told her, as they sipped champagne after he'd signed the papers. Then, he'd run off to a theater date with the latest in his string of acquired beauties.

Mystery tried not to be jealous of those women-who all too easily fell for Brent's boyish charm and hilarious wit. She'd done that, too. Mystery had tried to bury her feelings for Brent a dozen times in the past-dating sporadically, but never finding anyone who quite met the Brent standard.

They were friends-the best of friends. While it disappointed Mystery that Brent never seemed to consider her as a possible mate, she consoled herself that she was still with him, while the others soon became yesterday's news.

Trying once again, Mystery tugged at her skirt. Fabric ripped. The sudden release hurled Mystery down the ledge. She grabbed the frame of the out-turned window and flipped herself into the office. Landing on the floor, Mystery felt the air rush from her lungs.

"Whew. That was exhilarating," she said to the shocked woman sitting at a desk in the office, fingers frozen over her keyboard. Brushing the grime from her hands, Mystery sat straight up. She brushed her hair back from her face and rose unsteadily to her feet.

"What…what…what were you doing?" asked Sandra, glancing back and forth between the window and Mystery.

"Just out for a bit of polluted air," Mystery said cheerfully, as she smoothed down the skirt of her formerly pink linen suit. "Well, I don't think there's a detergent or dry cleaner in the world that can save this outfit.

"Have a nice afternoon, Sandra. See you later."

Summoning as much dignity as possible, Mystery hobbled to the door and nonchalantly walked into the hallway, leaving an incredulous Sandra still staring at her sudden arrival and quicker retreat.

Nodding to her coworkers who stared and chuckled as she stormed down the hall, Mystery fumed at her own gullibility. Sure, she thought, no good deed goes unpunished. Look what trying to do a good deed for Brent got me.

As she began to push open the door to the ladies room, a tanned hand caught her elbow and pulled her around.

"My God, what happened to you?" asked Brent. "I ask you to do a little looking around on computers and you come back looking like you've gone for a ride in a tornado."

"Let's just say that your little request left me teetering on the edge of disaster. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to check my makeup and perhaps tidy up a bit."

Mystery threw her chin up and walked as gracefully as possible into the room. She turned, poked her head out the door and called back at Brent.

"By the way, dear boss, would you like to go look for my shoes? Start at the ledge outside your favorite columnist's window. Just pop on out and look down. They should be somewhere around a gray sedan and a green station wagon. Then, take a leap," Mystery called as she flipped a small salute and disappeared into the ladies room.

Mystery walked over to the sink and turned on the water. She glanced into the mirror at her soot-smudged face and shook her head. Brent had often enrolled her assistance in solving his little intrigues during the years that they had worked together. This wasn't the first time she'd found herself in a delicate, dangerous and tricky position complying with one of his frequent favors.

However, the rewards were usually worth the sacrifices. When Brent started at the newspaper as an investigative reporter, Mystery found Brent's excitement for his job contagious. In the beginning, they had spent long hours together while Mystery had tweaked his computer system so it would operate the way he wanted it to work instead of the way it was originally programmed. Brent was grateful for the assistance, but Mystery, who had fallen under his spell, was sad to see the system finally ready. There would be no more excuses for the reporter and the publisher's assistant to share idle moments chatting and sharing laughter.

Mystery was surprised one day when Brent popped into her office, leaned against the door, smiled that incredibly wide grin and asked her for a favor, the first of many. He was working on a story about the abuse of the homeless. Someone was beating street women and taking their meager possessions. None of them would speak with him about it, so Brent thought, they would perhaps speak with another homeless woman. Would Mystery mind dressing the part and asking a few questions?

Mystery looked into the mirror and chuckled. She looked about as good now as she had when she complied with Brent's first favor. Dressed in a long tattered coat, three scarves, fingerless gloves with dirt and grease smeared on her face, the women trusted Mystery and took her into their confidences. Then, just as Mystery was leaving the street for her rendezvous with Brent, a hulking, huge, homeless man pulled her into dark alley shadows.

As the man towered over her, bathing her in the stench of sweat and garlic, Mystery feared that the favor would end tragically. Out of the shadows and mist, Brent appeared, followed by a street patrolman, and, in seconds, the man was in custody. Mystery was safe. Case solved. After hours of repeating her statement to the police, Brent finally took Mystery home where he kept apologizing and hugging her closely.

The warmth of his embrace cemented the bond she felt with him. Despite the danger, Mystery realized then that she loved this man and would do whatever he asked.

"And look where it's gotten you. A couple of years older. More in love with him than ever, even though you've watched the parade of women march through his life. And still his favorite buddy and partner in crime. Or should that be grime?" Mystery thought, as she frowned to her reflection in the mirror as she scrubbed at a stubborn smear of dirt. "Of course, I guess I've watched my own parade of men pass by, too."

Taking one last look in the mirror, Mystery sighed. She stripped off her ripped hose, happy she'd just run her razor over her legs that morning. Though she didn't have any extra clothes at the office, she did, at least, have an extra pair of shoes.

Upon returning to her office, Mystery crawled as far under the desk as she could. It was dark under there and she used her fingers to feel around for the spare pair of pumps.

"Find anything interesting down there?" boomed a deep, husky voice.

Mystery groaned softly and quietly pounded her forehead against the carpeted floor. Naturally, Brent would come into the office and find her sprawled under her desk with her posterior prominently displayed high in the air. Brent was always apt to discover her at her most embarrassing moments.

Could he ever come into her office when she was sitting primly posed on the edge of her chair with her legs suggestively crossed and displaying just a touch of thigh? Of course not. Would he ever think of poking his head through her door when she was flipping back her long auburn hair and chatting merrily on the telephone. Never.

No, hard as she tried to arrange seductive, "spur-of-the-moment" encounters with him that would display her at her womanly best, it never happened. Invariably, Brent would always pop up just when she was at her klutzy best. It seemed the gods of romance took real pleasure in thwarting her every effort.

Mystery had forced out a gay, carefree laugh "Not really, no dead bodies…but there are a few dust bunnies that don't look very healthy," she said as she retrieved the missing pair of shoes.

Brent roared with laughter as he extended his hand to help her rise from the floor. Mystery held it tightly as she tried to balance and place the shoes on her bare feet.

"Well, I guess you don't look too worse for your experience. But, tell me, please, just what were you doing out on the ledge?"

"You should know, you sent me there," Mystery accused. "As I recall, you were the one who asked me to poke around the computers."

"That's exactly what I mean…the real 'mystery' here is what you were doing out there. I don't recall we've installed any computers out there," Brent laughed.

Inwardly, Mystery groaned at Brent's attempt at levity. She'd hated her name every since she'd heard other children make fun of it when she started school. It hadn't gotten any better over the years. It had been the subject embarrassment for her and merriment for others her entire life. Her parents always said they'd been inspired by their lives when it came time to name the tiny infant. What else would the owners of a new and thriving detective agency name their child, they'd say in their own defense.

Whenever Mystery and Brent visited her parents, the subject invariably came around to just how she was named. Her father would laugh and tell Brent that it was just a mystery to them how her mother had ever become pregnant in the first place. Her mother would laugh and say it had always been as much of a mystery to her as well. Brent would laugh in response and tell them that it was a "mystery" to him how any daughter of theirs could be so different from them.

Mystery's face would flush with embarrassment and anger as she'd try to change the subject. Inevitably, she'd just walk off into the kitchen as the echoes of their amusement burned in her ears. She was torn by their teasing. In one way, it galled her that they would tease her about something of which she was embarrassed. In another, she loved the times they all shared together and appreciated the way Brent respected her parents, who were the most important people in her life.

"The only real mystery here is why I keep doing you favors without asking 'why' first," Mystery replied as she shook her hair back in place, collected herself and straightened her skirt.

"Well, I just don't understand how you always find yourself in these predicaments," laughed Brent, as he sprawled down in a chair near Mystery's window. "I am sorry. I shouldn't have asked you to go sleuthing for me. You could have been hurt and I never want to see my little buddy hurt."

Mystery inwardly grimaced at being called 'little buddy' once again. Would he never start considering her anything more than a 'buddy,' she wondered. That, she decided, was too much for which to hope. It was better to just be his friend.

"Don't worry about it," smiled Mystery. "I survived. Again. I don't think you'd ask me to do a favor if you didn't really need it.

"Though I must say, considering I've now balanced on a narrow ledge miles above the street for you, I think maybe you'd better tell me just why I was checking computers today. You know the pink of this suit really does clash with the grime of exhaust fumes."

Glancing out at the bright day, Brent ran his fingers through his darker than midnight hair as a shadow of seriousness fell upon his face. Mystery swung her office chair around to face Brent. Clouds darkened his deep blue eyes as he gazed outside-his thin lips drawn in a tight line across his face. All merriment of spirit had fled him. He had seemed oblivious to her presence in the room.

Reaching her hand out to lightly touch the coarse fabric of his stylish suit, Mystery drew his attention back to the present.

"Brent…Brent, you still here with me?" she asked softly. "What's wrong? I never liked this suit that much anyway and I probably needed some freshly polluted air."

"Hm?…oh, it's not that, Myst," Brent said, referring to her by the special nickname he'd given her when they first began working together.

"Then what is it?" She sat back and folded her arms against her chest. "You know you can tell me anything, Brent. You can count on me. Haven't I always been here for you? Even when you decided to buy this rundown paper? Now, that's something which still mystifies me."

"Myst, you know that it's always been my dream to own my own paper and run it the way a responsible paper should be run. Look at the way it's turned around. Until a few weeks ago, ad revenues were up, subscriptions were up…it was becoming profitable for the first time in years.

"Unfortunately, now it's seems that someone is out to get me, Myst. Someone wants to see me destroyed. I don't know who it is and I don't know why. All I know is that whoever it is, they work right here at the paper," Brent said slowly.

"And if I don't find out who it is and why, and soon, I'll lose everything. I'll be stripped of everything I've worked for my entire life."

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