With a sigh, Scotty closed the manila folder he'd been digging through and plopped it back into the box from Al's. He'd gone over all the purchase records from 1995 this morning. The ones from '99, too. But there was no mention of that damned hood ornament anywhere.
"Ready for another one?" Lilly offered a sympathetic flash of blue eyes as she combed through a sheaf of pale yellow purchase slips, made even paler by the sunlight streaming through the windows.
"Yeah, just gotta grab a refill first." Scotty grabbed his empty coffee mug and rose from his chair. "Get you anything?"
Lilly glanced into her own mug and then handed it to him with a smile. "Top me off?"
"You got it." His fingers brushed against hers as he took her mug. Whether she noticed or not, he couldn't tell. And why he noticed, why it sent electricity zooming all the way to his elbow, wasn't really something he wanted to think about.
All morning, he'd been trying to avoid looking across the desk at her. But all morning, his eyes had staunchly ignored his brain's directive, jumping again and again to admire porcelain skin, sapphire eyes, and that cornsilk blonde hair. It was pulled back in a ponytail, as usual, but that didn't stop him from wondering, for the thousandth time since Saturday night, if it was really as soft as he remembered.
There was no denying it. Ever since that night on the rooftop, things with Lil had been different. Warmer. More comfortable. Almost as though the wedge Saccardo had driven between them wasn't there. In fact, Scotty had almost forgotten the guy even existed until last night, when he walked into the kitchen for some coffee and saw Lilly with that note in her hand and a dreamy smile on her face.
It was a knee-jerk reaction, his return to the bush leagues. He hoped Lilly would brush off his comment, as she'd always done in the past, but no such luck. She'd whirled to face him, her eyes sparking with anger but begging for honesty, and he was forced to plumb the depths of that messy knot in the center of his chest, the one that grew tighter with every thought of Eddie Saccardo.
He'd told her the truth. Probably more of it than he would have if he'd had a chance to think it over. And whether it was what she wanted to hear or not, he could tell he'd gotten through to her. Made her think. Several times over the course of the morning, he'd noticed her toying with that diamond necklace, obviously deep in thought. Whether those thoughts were about the case or about his comments, he couldn't tell. Occasionally, though, her gaze would drift to him; her lips would reward him with a shy, secret smile. One that let him know their new closeness was still intact. That the progress they'd made the last two days was safe.
That had brought those strange inner stirrings back with a vengeance, and he wished like hell they'd go away. He couldn't feel…that way…about her. Not about Lilly. She was his friend. His partner. The polar opposite of the type of woman he was normally interested in, and absolutely the last woman he should be.
But try telling that to his wandering eyes, which, even now, were fixed on her through the kitchen window as she pored through another pile of purchase slips.
Oh, hell. Maybe he was just lonely. It had been a while since he'd gone out with anyone, and the short-lived…whatever the hell that was with that pain-in-the-ass ADA didn't really count. So maybe that was it. Maybe he just needed to get out there and meet someone.
The coffee ready and doctored to his liking, he grabbed both his mug and Lilly's and returned with them to the squad room. He put Lilly's coffee directly on her desk—no sense risking another jolt from inadvertent contact—and managed to avoid looking at her as he dragged another box to his desk and popped the lid off. 2002 this time. Maybe that would be the lucky year.
He'd just removed the folder for January when he heard Vera say into the phone, "Excellent. Thank you," and then bang it down with a note of triumph.
"You're welcome," Vera announced to the room at large.
"Welcome for what, Nick?" Lilly paused, the freshly refilled mug of coffee halfway to her lips.
Vera looked like he was about to burst with pride. "You all can stop diggin'."
"Thank God." Jeffries closed the file he'd been digging through and lifted his own coffee mug. "What'd you find?"
"This." Nick held up a yellow purchase slip. "Had a hunch about an unmarked folder at the bottom of the pile. Turns out I was right."
"I know you're gonna let this go to your head, but right now, I don't care." Kat shut the folder she'd been working on and leaned back in her chair with the look of someone who'd just been released from prison.
"According to the purchase record, Al bought the hood ornament at an estate sale for a William Stevenson in Jersey in April, 1998," Vera continued. "I tracked down William's son, Jeff, who remembers his old man goin' to car auctions and just buyin' up parts, even parts that didn't go with any of the cars he owned. Never did much with 'em, Jeff says, just likes to collect 'em."
"People actually do that?" Kat asked.
"Some," Scotty replied. Glancing up, he found Lilly grinning at him, and those damned stirrings started up again.
"Anyway." Vera's excited tone jerked Scotty's attention back to the matter at hand. "I sent Jeff a picture of the hood ornament, and he remembers it. Says he and his dad found it at a pawn shop a couple years before the old man kicked it. Accordin' to him, these things are pretty rare."
"Any chance he remembers which pawn shop?" Scotty asked.
"Ask and ye shall receive." Vera held up the piece of paper he'd been scribbling on. "Big Ed's Big Pawn. Just across the river in Willingboro."
"Nice work, Nicky." Stillman, who'd just come out of his office, gave Vera a congratulatory nod. "Rush, why don't you and Will go follow that up?"
"You got it, Boss." Lilly reached across and took the piece of paper from Vera's outstretched hand.
"Anyone talked to the sister yet?" Stillman asked.
"Not yet, Boss." Kat said. "We've been playin' phone tag."
"Well, you and Nicky go see if you can arrange a face-to-face," Stillman replied. "She needs to know where we are on the investigation. And Scotty?"
Stillman grinned. "Load up these boxes and take 'em back to Allentown."
"It'll be my pleasure." Scotty slid the folder back into the box he'd just opened, put the lid back on, and gave it an affectionate pat. It was sixty miles to Allentown. Sixty miles of open road, peace and quiet, and no Lilly. Surely by the time he got up there and back he'd have his head on straight.
And if he didn't… well, maybe he'd give that lab tech a call. Frankie, or whatever her name was.
Because if this was what loneliness would do to him? He wanted no part of it.
"Well, well." Vera slid behind the driver's seat, then glanced over at Kat and smiled as she fastened her seat belt. "Good morning, beautiful."
"Cut the crap, Nick."
"C'mon. You know you like it when I call you that." He flashed her a grin, that grin he knew she couldn't resist. Sure enough, a moment later, her deep brown eyes were sparkling, and she was trying to suppress that full blown Kat Miller smile. Satisfied, Vera put the car in gear, content in the company of the woman next to him. He couldn't hope to understand her. But, to his surprise, he could make her happy. And that alone made him feel like the king of the world.
"So are we, uh…are we gonna talk about last night?" she asked.
Vera grinned. "What's to talk about? Seems like you had a pretty good time."
"Not that." She sounded like she was still trying not to smile. "I meant…before."
"Oh. Right. Yeah, somethin' was definitely goin' on between Rush and Valens."
Her head jerked toward him almost audibly.
"That wasn't it?" His grin widened for a moment, but faded when he saw her anxious expression.
"We almost got caught, Nick."
Hoping to reassure her, Vera said the first thing that came to mind. "No, we didn't."
Not surprisingly, this was less than helpful.
"Are you kidding me? I forgot my coat? Was that not the worst excuse you've ever heard?"
"Hey. Kat. Relax." He was grateful they'd just pulled up to a stoplight so he could focus his full attention on those delicious dark eyes. "Rush and Valens didn't even blink when they saw us this mornin'. They were too busy sneakin' looks at each other."
"Yeah?" She sounded desperate to believe him.
"Couldn't keep their eyes on their paperwork for more than a couple seconds at a whack." The light turned green, and Vera switched his attention back to the road. "Besides, last night when we walked in? Don't even wanna think about what mighta happened with those two if we hadn't. I'm tellin' you, something's goin' on with them."
"Well, Scotty's had a thing for Lil for ages."
"But I never thought he'd act on it. And I can't believe I missed it."
The right turn Vera was making offered him the opportunity to grin at her. "Maybe you were just too distracted."
Kat rolled her eyes, but the fact that she remained silent told him she'd conceded the point. He resisted the urge to pump his fist in triumph.
"So here's my theory. Rush and Valens were too busy with whatever's goin' on with them…" A jolt of adrenaline shot through him. "To worry about...whatever's goin' on with us."
Another stoplight gave him an opportunity to hazard a cautious glance. Kat peered back at him with an apprehensive smile. "Do we…know what that is?"
"Not exactly. But I can tell you it's the best thing that's ever happened to me." He waited, holding his breath, as she processed that information.
"Well, y'know…me, too," she said. "One of 'em, anyway."
Vera let out the breath. "Then I guess we gotta start comin' up with some better excuses."
"Or, y'know…" she peeked at him in a decidedly flirtatious way. "Maybe not try to have a rendezvous at the office?"
Vera grinned and eased off the brakes. "Let's call that Plan B."
Kat settled into a seat at Bridget Sorenson's dining room table, watching the older woman select a china teacup from a cabinet with a grace and elegance that belied her seventy years. The screech of the tea kettle died down to a half-hearted whisper as Bridget took it off the stove.
"I was just about to have some tea," Bridget said. "Could I offer either of you a cup?"
"Sure," Nick piped up to Kat's right, drawing her incredulous glance. The twinkle in his warm hazel eyes made it clear that he'd accepted the proffered beverage not because he actually wanted it, but because he knew it would get a reaction. Probably the exact reaction she'd given him, if his roguish smile was any indication. She shook her head and rolled her eyes slightly, drawing a laugh he quickly disguised as a cough.
"Detective Miller?" Bridget asked.
"Thank you, but no. I'm fine," Kat replied.
"I'm sorry I've been hard to reach." Bridget poured the steaming water into the delicate cups. "I've been visiting my daughter in San Francisco, and I must be the last person in the world without a cell phone."
Nick smiled and, a bit uncomfortably, accepted the dainty cup and saucer Bridget held out to him. "Nah, my mom's still holdin' out, too."
With a smile, Bridget settled into a chair and appeared to steel herself. "So you've got a lead on Ellie? After all this time?"
Kat nodded, her heart going out to the older woman. "Our detectives found what we believe to be Ellie's suitcase last week in an apartment in Kensington." Kat slid a handful of photographs of the suitcase across the table and watched as Bridget's blue eyes filled with tears.
"Oh, my, yes, those are Ellie's things." Bridget flipped through the photos. "That's her favorite dress…and those shoes. My God, I loaned her those shoes." She pressed a fist to her lips in a fight for composure, and Kat closed her eyes for a moment. God, she hated this part.
"You, uh…have any idea about these books, Mrs. Sorenson?" Nick's voice was soft and full of compassion as he showed Bridget another photo.
Bridget took it from his hand and considered it for a moment, then shook her head of still-auburn hair. "Ellie was always reading something. Mystery novels, mostly. She liked those the best." She handed the photo back to Nick, then turned her gaze to Kat. "You said her things were found in Kensington?"
Kat glanced over at Nick, who nodded. "Place has seen better days."
"Can you think of any reason why Ellie might have been in Kensington?" Kat asked.
"No." Bridget carefully removed the teabag from her cup and nestled it onto the saucer. "No, I don't believe she had any connections there."
Vera pulled another photo from the file. "Do you remember the car the Flemings gave Ellie when she and James got engaged?"
"How could I forget?" Bridget chuckled. "That car was her pride and joy."
"Do you remember this hood ornament?" Vera asked. "Couple of our guys came across it at a classic car expo yesterday."
Bridget glanced down at the photo, blinking in disbelief. "The hood ornament? Where's the rest of the car?"
"We're…still workin' on that," Kat replied.
"Mrs. James." Bridget drew in a shaky breath. "That's definitely Ellie's. She showed me the engraving James had done at the base of it."
Kat steeled herself for the unpleasant question ahead. "Can you think of anyone who might have wanted to hurt Ellie?"
Bridget blinked up at her. "So this is a murder investigation? But…there's—there's no…" she trailed off, unable to speak the word.
"We have reason to believe foul play was involved," Nick said quietly.
From within the file, Kat produced a protective plastic sleeve containing the page from Ellie's steno pad. "This note was in Ellie's suitcase when we found it. It has some water damage, but…you can see why we're concerned."
Bridget gasped. "My God." Her hand flew to her chest; her eyes to Kat. "Rick."
Kat glanced over at Vera to find him looking back at her. "Who's Rick?" she asked.
"I swore to Ellie I wouldn't tell a soul."
Kat suppressed a sudden prick of irritation. People insisted on keeping forty-five year-old secrets one moment, and then the next, they wondered why the police couldn't solve the murder.
The same slight edge was present in Vera's voice. "Mrs. Sorenson, if you know something that could help us find out what happened to Ellie, you need to tell us."
Bridget closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them, her jaw set. "Rick Rodgers was an attorney at the firm where she worked." Her spoon made pointless circles in a half-empty teacup, clinking gently against its china edges. "I don't know when their relationship turned romantic, but Ellie confided in me a few weeks before she disappeared. She said she'd had cold feet about marrying James, but she'd gotten it out of her system and was ready to commit."
"Do you know for a fact she broke it off with Rick?" Kat's mind whirred with the possibilities.
"Well, I assumed she did." Bridget rested her spoon on the saucer and picked up her teacup. "I never heard another word about him. Ellie looked for all the world like a young woman getting ready to marry the love of her life."
"Did James ever find out about the affair?" Kat asked.
"Not that I could tell," Bridget replied. "That was part of why I kept her secret."
Nick glanced her way. "If I'm Rick, and I find out I'm just a vehicle for some runaway-bride type to find herself, I'm not gonna take that too well."
"And if James found out somehow, I can't imagine he took it too well," Kat shot back.
The energetic glimmer in Nick's eyes matched the one she felt in her heart. This case had just picked up some serious steam in the form of not one, but two suspects, both with definite motive.
It was moments like this when Kat loved her job the most.
"Any idea where Rick is now?" Nick switched his gaze back across the table to Bridget.
Chuckling, the older woman gave his hand a fond pat. "Oh, honey. Everyone knows where Rick Rodgers is now. Because after Ellie disappeared, he left the firm and started writing murder mysteries. I always found his timing…peculiar."
Kat's eyes bugged out of her head. "Wait, he's that Rick Rodgers?"
"As in, the guy who could get New York Times Bestseller status with a grocery list?" Nick looked equally incredulous.
"That's the one." Bridget's lips tightened in a grim smile. "I think he lives in New York, although I don't know anything beyond that." She pushed her chair back and started to gather the tea things. "But you can probably find him through his publisher."
"Queenswell. Got it." Kat clicked her pen and closed her notebook, raising her gaze to a bemused-looking Vera.
"You knew that off the top of your head?" he asked.
Kat smiled. "I…might have read a few of his books."
"Yeah, well…me, too." Vera flashed that irritatingly irresistible grin and leaned over to whisper in her ear as Bridget cleared the table and headed for the kitchen sink. "You mean to tell me we actually got somethin' in common?"
Oh, goddammit. She really was falling for him, wasn't she? Those puppy-dog eyes; that impish smile. But the thing of it was, that softer side of him she'd uncovered in recent weeks, the way he doted on her in a way she never thought she'd want, the natural ease he had with Veronica…that softer side was like a pillow cushioning her fall.
As a result, it wasn't nearly as terrifying as she'd thought it might be.