Chapter OneLast Seen DeadIt is enough to break a guy's heart......if a macho dude like me could ever admit to having one.I sit, apparently calm and dignified, on the off-white sofa in the living room of what you could call my digs, my crib, my flat... okay, "our" condominium unit at Las Vegas's only round five-story 1950s landmark, the Circle Ritz.The round part you probably get. The Ritz part is a word that was chichi way-back-when in the mid-twentieth century and sounds more like a cracker nowadays. Although that cracker is indeed round.But crackers can be easily crushed, and that is exactly what my esteemed roommate, Miss Temple Barr, would be if she knew what I knew: that her longtime squeeze, Mr. Max Kinsella, is pretty thoroughly crushed himself these days. In fact, I and my partner in crime solving saw him plunge five stories into a solid black wall thirty-six hours ago at the nightclub called Neon Nightmare. Talk about an apt name.Miss Midnight Louise is my partner (and a would-be descendant in her own mind if only I would admit to being a deadbeat dad). She suspects that someone sinister had arranged Mr. Max's unscheduled landing, from which he was taken away by ambulance.Granted that performing bungee-cord acrobatics and illusions over a nightclub floor is a pretty dangerous pastime, but Mr. Max Kinsella had formerly been a top Vegas magic act under the name of The Mystifying Max.What is so mystifying is why he was performing masked under the moniker of the Phantom Mage at Neon Nightmare. Not even his girlfriend--and mine--Miss Temple Barr, knew about it.The lady in question ambles into the living room even as I muse about her. She is talking on one of those obnoxious cell phones that I wish had been drowned at invention in an acid bath. As if the world needed more distracted people wandering around forcing everyone to overhear the details of their professional and personal lives.Overhearing all that stuff is my job!However, it is sometimes handy to eavesdrop on one's nearest and dearest, though in this instance it is more than somewhat heartbreaking."Max!" my Miss Temple admonishes the tiny instrument pressed to her ear. "Answer! Pick up the phone. You have got to be home sometime during one of my hundred and one calls. I've got to talk to you. Soon!"She folds the already mouse-size phone in half and tosses it onto the sofa seat in disgust. Then she spots me and does her Cary Grant imitation: "Lou-ie, Lou-ie, Lou-ie."I do not know what ancient film that is from, but I never object to being associated with a leading man like Mr. Cary Grant, the twentieth-century equivalent of Mr. George Clooney in the suave department.Miss Temple picks up the phone and sits beside me, glum as the holiday-hijacking Grinch."Louie, what am I to do with a man who won't ever answer the phone, even when I'm going to dump him?"Well.... For the first time in my long career as a primo PI, all-around hip cat, and career-girl companion, I wish I had not taken a vow of silence when it comes to conversing with humans.I long to offer my Miss Temple some trenchant "Dear Tabby" advice. I wish I at least had the option of warning her that her not-so-beloved-lately was in the hands of the paramedics and the city hospital system, if not the county coroner.Usually I like knowing what other folks do not: that is a crack PI's job.Now I just feel as low-down and guilty as any back-alley goldfish-gulper caught raiding the koi pond at the Crystal Phoenix Hotel and Casino."I am so glad I have you to talk to when I am upset," she continues, twisting the knife.Who knew a conscience could be so painful? Not moi. I am glad that I do not have a soul, at least, although some on the ailurophile fringe might debate that.I understand her problem, of course. She has gone forth and consummated her long-simmering attraction to our upstairs neighbor, Mr. Matt Devine, ex-priest now in need of a nice dark confessional, if the church authorities had not scotched these handy dramatic devices of film and story long ago.I saw that coming from almost a year ago, not that anybody would listen to me. And not that I would want them to. I do not talk to people, and thus save myself from a lot of drivel.Mr. Max is a swell fellow, but enmeshed in intrigue local and international. Such an agenda does not allow a man to keep the home fires burning as hotly as they should. It is the old story: a romantic triangle turned tragic, only nobody knows it but me.I will have to see what I can do to change that.Chapter 2Limp BiscuitTemple hiked herself onto one of the two breakfast stools in her tiny black-and-white kitchen. Then she ravaged the upper cupboard for something salty, crunchy, and frustration-reducing.All she found was a long-opened box of Ritz crackers, half full of soggy imposters of crunch. She tossed the box toward the Albertson's paper bag that served as a temporary trash receptacle.Okay. She'd finally made the most momentous decision of her life. She'd picked which of two totally wonderful guys she wanted to spend that life with. She took a deep breath. Matt was so sweet. So totally amazing. So hot!He had been, like, worried about seventeen priestly years of celibacy cramping his style?Not!Oh! She was sounding so teenager-y-in-love.Temple sobered. She'd felt that much in love with Max once, almost three years ago. A year in love here in Las Vegas after instant-everything in Minneapolis. A year of Max gone. Not even a full year of Max back.Temple went for her refrigerator, hunting something, something... crisp and sour. No pickles. Okay. Sweet. What? Was she pregnant? Or just having a change of hormones. Of heart? Or a heart still torn two ways?A knock on her doorbell put her into cardiac arrest. On her door! Not doorbell, dumbbell! She had to cut herself some slack. After all, she was just a teenager in love.Matt always knocked.She opened the door, hungry and anxious and edgy.And it was all, well, all right."I'm not bothering you?" Matt asked in his polite Midwestern way.She pulled him inside, slammed the door shut, and pushed him up against the entry-hall wall."Yes, you are. What are you going to do about it?"He didn't hesitate, just drew her into a mind-blowing soul kiss and during it turned her into the wall herself, so she was pressed hard against, well, everything.Several minutes later, they ambled into the living room to admire Midnight Louie on the couch."Have you reached him?" Matt asked warily.Temple knew he didn't mean Midnight Louie. She eyed his ruffled blond hair, his warm brown eyes hotter than black coffee from their make-out session in the hall, his expression of uneasy concern.He realized their new intimate relationship would never feel entirely real until Temple formally broke it off with Max. Although neither one would say this or even mention Max's name at the moment.That was Max. Mystique to the end. Temple swallowed a sob.Matt was there, holding her. "It's all right.""What's all right?""However you feel.""I feel horrible. I feel like a rat. I've got to reach him. It's not like he didn't know this was coming.""He knew?" Matt held her away, staring hard into her eyes, seeing the troubled emotions she hadn't wanted him to notice."He's Max. Of course he knew."Matt's lips tightened."He gave me permission, for God's sake.""Permission?""His blessing?" Temple added with a sob she had to cup with a hand to her mouth to stop.For some strange reason, Matt smiled. "Yeah. I kinda got that from him too. I don't think your faith in him was ever misplaced.""But he is! Max is. I can't find him. I can't get him to call me back so I can say, 'Hi. 'Bye.' I need to be up front with him about this. That's all. Let him know. For sure. Nothing about us is a problem, Matt. But I warned you, saying good-bye to someone is hell.""What about the ring?""What about it?""Where are you keeping it, since you don't wear it? Yet."Temple breathed deep. "In my scarf drawer," she said in a small, wee voice."Scarf drawer?""It's where I keep everything I don't know what to do with safe.""Temple, that ring is worth, well, way more than it should be.""I know, Matt. Fred Leighton. I was hoping I could put it openly on my finger soon. Like... today. Then it would take a mugger cutting my finger off to get it.""Temple!" Matt was half laughing, half shaking his head. "Look. Danny built a floor safe into my bedroom redo. I'll just keep it there for the time being. Your scarf drawer doesn't sound terribly secure, unless you also keep boa constrictors in there to fend off burglars.""You're right. The ring needs to be worn or kept someplace secure. Come into my boudoir and we will unearth it from a pile of lovely but annoyingly unmanageable scarves. Frenchwomen really know how to accessorize with those things, but I am about as French as Midnight Louie."She took his hand to lead him away, thinking maybe it was time her Circle Ritz bedroom had a new sensuous adventure to record.Matt hesitated at the threshold. Temple knew what he was thinking: this had been Max's and her bedroom for more than a year. The bed was California king-length, for six-foot-four Max, and Matt sure didn't need that.She stepped close. "It's all right. You know I'm all yours, anytime, anyplace. Ring or no ring."So they ended up ruffling the zebra-stripe coverlet, both of them the better for it."Where's this fabled scarf drawer?" Matt asked finally.Temple guessed he'd never consummate anything with her in that bed."Over here, sir." She got up and opened the top drawer of the small chest against the wall. "Every scarf I was ever given as a gift, and that I wronged with an inept knot, a careless twist, a hopeless loop, lies interred here, along with other odds and ends. It is yours to riffle as you please. As am I." She finished with a curtsy.Matt grinned at her presentation. "No one can oversell like you.""Thanks for the professional compliment."He began sifting through the frothy rainbow of scarves. "This should be good practice for violating your lingerie drawer in future. Aha! The significant clue. A ring box."He pulled out a plain white box and opened it to reveal something Temple didn't recognize at first. When she did, her cheeks flushed."That's not it. That's just a tawdry cubic zirconia ring I bought somewhere."It was also oddly similar to the Tiffany opal-and-diamond ring Max had given her in New York City Christmas last, when she and he had thought his dangerous past was history and their glowing future was now.She'd bought this cheap reminder of that lost ring for less than forty dollars in a weak moment, for which she'd been noted recently.Matt tossed the box on the bed."Okay," he said. "More scarves. Am I supposed to deduce something from this mass of scarves?"He held up two, stretched out. Gave her all sorts of ideas."Danny did give your bedroom a four-poster bed," she said.Danny Dove was Temple's dear friend and a noted Vegas choreographer. Nothing better than a gay choreographer for masterminding a straight guy's bedroom decor.There was a moment of prolonged silence. Matt had read his Joy of Sex book religiously. But at least now he'd forgotten the ersatz opal-diamond ring. Mission accomplished.He lifted another cheap ring box with a quizzical look."Something I picked up somewhere, sometime. Don't ask me what that is."Matt opened it. Stared. Looked up at her with real worry."I do, Temple.""What?" The wedding vow answer had both startled and encouraged her."I know what this is, and it's not good. This is the ring Kathleen O'Connor mailed to me.""No! What was that about? It's a nasty snaky thing, no wonder it came from that vixen.""Not a snake." Matt held up the sinuous gold circle between his thumb and forefinger, like a dissection specimen. "It's a dragon, really, swallowing its own tail; an ancient symbol of eternity called the worm Ouroboros.""Ouroboro-what? Kitty the Cutter sent you a ring? I didn't know about that.""I didn't want you to. It was another of her sick stalking games. She said I had to wear it or she'd hurt someone near me. So I carried it in my pocket when I was out and left it on my living room side table when I was in. I never put it on my finger. Where did you get it?"Temple thought. "I don't know. I put everything I don't know what to do with in that drawer.""Including this?" Matt lifted the gray velvet box containing his... her... ring."Yes, but only for safekeeping. Until I can, you know, reach Max.""What if you never reach him? Are we on hold until then?""No! I just want to do the right thing.""Temple." Matt came to sit beside her on the bed. "I've spent all my life trying to do exactly the right thing and I've learned that can be paralyzing. Look. I'll take this ring up to my safe for now. But I need you to think about when, and where, you got Kitty the Cutter's ring, the one she made me carry as a sign of her power over me.""Good Lord! What an awful talisman! How did you lose it?""She loved to show that she could come and go in my place as she pleased. It disappeared one day. After... Vassar died. That's all. I figured that meant she was finally disappointed in me. It disappeared. Just like she ultimately did.""Yeah, she died. Gee, Matt, I just can't remember where I got that thing right now. But I did get it. It's ended up here. You don't think Kitty--?""I hope not, but she is dead now, at least.""Somehow I came across it, but where or when--?"Temple pushed her hands into the blond hair at her temples, warding off the headache that was sure to come.Matt caught and removed her hands. "Take it easy, Goldilocks. You'll never remember something trying that hard. Just let the question bounce around in your brain for a while.""What brain? I'm a blonde, haven't you noticed?""Only temporarily, and I don't mind. I'm a blond too, so dumb blond jokes are personal." He leaned in and kissed her hair. "Besides, I think that's what did it.""What did what?""Your bottle-blonde undercover makeover job. It made you look just different enough to make me think that I might have a chance with a Brave New Temple.""Oh."Of course he had to kiss her surprise away. Too bad she wasn't brave, or very new. Just the same old bundle of chutzpah, humor, and hope a single girl had to be nowadays.Not quite single."Matt, I'm sorry to be so neurotic about Max. It's just that I've been worrying about him for so long.""I wouldn't love you if you didn't. What can I do?""Love me when I'm being a ditz.""Easy.""Safeguard our ring." She closed her hands over his holding the box. "I'll try to zen my way into remembering Kitty's ugly offering. In fact, take that ugly ring thing up to your safe too. There might be fingerprints on it.""What good will that do us?" he asked."Molina can get it analyzed, if we figure out a good excuse.""I'm not sure she would--""I am. All we have to do is have you ask her.""I don't have any pull with Molina.""Hmmm. We'll see."Copyright © 2007 by Carole Nelson Douglas. All rights reserved. Excerpted from Cat in a Red Hot Rage by Carole Nelson Douglas All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.