Evelyn took Thursdays off to manage personal and family affairs, and offered to give Rose a ride to the police station, where Rose would stay and talk to Michael and Blake until Evelyn finished her errands, including a hair appointment. Annabelle said she could drive Rose, but Evelyn insisted they didn’t waste gas, which Annabelle found funny.
“I’ll be all right, Evelyn,” Rose said as she opened the car door with a trembling hand. “You don’t need to bother getting out. I’ve been here before.”
She’d brought the police file to discuss with Michael, and had called ahead that morning to let him know she was on her way.
“I’ll be back in about two hours,” Evelyn said. “I’ll text you before I head over.”
Even as she pondered why someone with hair so obviously perfectly put-together would need a hair appointment, Rose waved goodbye to her niece and entered the police station, where Michael Barron already waited for her at the front desk. He sat in the receptionist’s chair, who he said was out to lunch. Rose couldn’t help noticing he looked a bit thinner, that his eyes looked wilder and fatigued, and that his hair had started to go a bit dull and flat.
“I hope you don’t mind,” he said, ushering her into one of the interview rooms once more. “We can’t find a lot of privacy anywhere else at the station.”
“That’s quite all right, Lieutenant,” Rose said, waving her hand dismissively as she pulled the file out of her satchel. “Now, I wanted to discuss some of the finer points here with you, if you can spare the time.”
“Certainly,” he said in his bright, chirpy accent. “I’ll need to take a short break for Blake’s shooting training. He’s going to need a slightly different certification if he wants to be eligible for a promotion, and I’ve been helping him practice.”
“Oh, that sounds very interesting,” Rose said. “Do you mind if I watch?”
“Not at all,” Michael said, laughing. “Now, what exactly do you want to discuss?”
Rose opened the file, and they talked about possibilities of entry. Michael agreed there didn’t look to be any way the killer could have entered without some sort of access by key and code, if indeed a killer existed.
“Now, you’ve said this can’t possibly be a robbery,” Rose said, “but Samantha’s report says she found empty spots in the filing in his study.”
“Yes, we looked into that,” Michael said with a frown, rubbing his thumb on his chin. The pad of his thumb shifting over the stubble made a sound like a hand running over a boar-bristle brush. “If you’re thinking corporate secrets, you can forget it. For one thing, Luke Hatfield had access to everything he wanted to know through the housekeeper. Doesn’t look like what she gave him handed him any ammunition, anyway, or he would have tried to take Conrad down in a lopsided merger through blackmail. And Evelyn already went over all of the files to see if any work-related information is missing from the study. She assures us they contained either house staffing files or personal information files of some sort.”
He licked his lips and went over the list Rose drew up of people with access.
“It’s a long list, I know,” Rose said. “Now, I wondered, which police officers had access to the codes in case of a false alarm?”
“The whole station had access, Mrs. McFarland,” he said, running his fingers down the list of staff. “Most of these people’ve no motive at all.”
“I realize. Was there anyone specifically assigned to check on them when on duty?”
“Oh, sure, Blake,” Michael said. “He knew the family, so it made a good fit as far as their comfort was concerned. Before you ask, he was off-duty that night. I don’t know where he was, but I suspect at home, sleeping.”
Rose began thinking over what possible motive Blake might possess to kill Conrad Benton. If he wanted to impress Annabelle, that wasn’t the way. And he didn’t need to cause her grief to help her recover from, because she still grieved from the loss of Julia. And she couldn’t see Conrad Benton disapproving of Blake dating his daughter. He was a good, respectable boy, and after Sonia’s issues at Annabelle’s age, Blake looked like the perfect man.
“Do you know which friends they gave keys to, the girls? I know they each gave a key to a friend.”
“Evelyn’s was a friend from work, if I recall,” Michael said, rubbing his temples. “Sonia’s was a boy she used to know, but he died and his father gave back the key after a big dispute with lawyers. I believe Adyson gave hers to her tennis coach. And Annabelle gave one to the Whitney girl, Julia Whitney, but her parents returned it after the tragedy. If she’s given it out again, the police hold no record of it.”
Rose frowned, looking down at the pictures of Conrad’s head at the crime scene.
“Julia Whitney is everywhere I turn,” Rose said. “Like a ghost.”
Michael laughed again and said, “Believe me, Mrs. McFarland, even if I were a superstitious man, Julia Whitney is about the last girl I’d expect to come back as a ghost. She was a sweet, steady, happy girl, and her death a tragic accident, but an accident nonetheless. She’s everywhere because she was a positive, well-loved member of a small community. A girl who always smiles isn’t likely to be a ghost, now, is she?”
“Smiles can hide secrets,” Rose said. Something about the two cases nagged at her, something Lieutenant Barron just said, but she couldn’t put her finger on it. Maybe that both cases were accidents, supposedly. But what if neither were an accident?
Still, he was right; they could hardly be related. Julia died in Europe in a car, and Conrad Benton died at home in his California shower. Other than the fact they appeared to be accidents and they knew each other, the cases had nothing in common.
They discussed possibilities of motives and points of entry depending on different suspects, but everything they talked through brought them around in circles. She was impressed with Michael as a policeman. He was very clever, very thorough.
About an hour in, someone knocked at the door, and Blake poked his head in. In contrast with his boss, Blake looked fresh and well groomed, his face cleanly shaven and his hair immaculately gelled. His eyes looked clear and crisp, and only the bump and crook of his nose could be seen as a flaw, if it had not been a natural part of his face.
“Sorry to interrupt,” he said nervously. “But you said to come and find you for the shooting....”
“Of course,” Michael said, giving Rose an apologetic smile. “Would you still care to join us?”
They packed up the file, and Rose stuck it back in her satchel. She followed them to the shooting range, which was conveniently housed in the next building over.
“Not a lot of call for it to be anywhere else,” Blake explained. “And we need to practice to keep our skills sharp, in case we find ourselves in some sort of emergency.”
Blake told Rose that, in the state of California, certification required mastery of a semiautomatic pistol, a revolver, and a shotgun. The one he’d just not felt comfortable with, he said, was the pistol.
“It doesn’t feel like a gun should,” he said. “I’m so used to feeling like something’s in my hand that I’m in charge of, but the semiautomatic throws me off.”
Michael teased him a bit, and Rose watched from a glass-covered, soundproofed area, where the range owner took a break from the desk to watch with her. He looked like the sort of man Rose didn’t think should be around guns, with large muscles and a cleanly shaved head. His angular jaw and pointed features gave off a sense of firm strength, but when he spoke to her he was soft and strangely jolly. His voice with a different face would be soothing. With his face, it was alarming and disconcerting.
“You’ll love this,” he said happily. “They’ve come down nearly every other day for the past two weeks, but the boy’s finding it hard to place the pistol shots where they need to be.”
“You need to hit ten shots on target to qualify for the higher level,” the man explained. “He’ll hit seven and he can’t hit anything else to the target. It’s seven, every time. Then the lieutenant, he’ll wind up frustrated, and show him how to correct his stance and aim and, well, you’ll see.”
Rose watched Blake. He shot with the shotgun first, and then the revolver, and she admitted to herself that while he wasn’t the most elegant marksman she’d ever seen, he certainly knew how to hit the target. The practice paid off where those weapons were concerned.
But then Michael handed him the semiautomatic pistol, and Blake changed his stance. He instantly looked tense.
“He’s too stiff,” she muttered, and the range owner looked impressed.
“Ah, no, a writer. But I’ve witnessed a few murders.”
The man said nothing to this, and if he thought it strange, he didn’t voice it. Instead, he counted Blake’s shots on target.
“Four,” he muttered. “Three to go.”
Sure enough, after three more shots, he started to falter, and his hand went unsteady. Even his shots on target landed less exactly than with his other firearms, and after a few miserably missed shots, Michael stopped him and took the pistol from him. He inserted a new clip, and Rose watched the range owner sit forward.
Michael fired ten shots in quick succession, all hitting the primary target spots. Dead center.
“Every time,” the range owner whispered reverently.
“He’s a genius. I’ve never seen him miss a target, or even hit off the main pulse points. He’s a precision expert.”
They repeated the exercise several times, with Blake accomplishing only minor improvements in accuracy and certainly not enough to gain him the advanced certification. Every time Michael stepped in to show him, he hit the same pulse points with incredible precision.
She could see why Blake felt honored to be Michael’s protégé. She’d met many brilliant marksmen, but Michael Barron was an artist.
When their hour was up, they joined Rose in the viewing area, Blake looking a touch embarrassed.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t give you a better show,” he said, shrugging. “I just can’t manage it.”
“Don’t worry, Blake,” Rose said happily. “Sometimes, the more we practice something, the more stuck in our mistakes we become. I’m sure when the time comes, you’ll manage it.”
They walked her back out to the parking lot, where Evelyn waited for her, tapping her fingernails on the steering wheel lazily. Rose didn’t want to stare, but her hair looked exactly the same as when she dropped Rose off that morning.
“Aunt Rose,” she said through the window she’d rolled down. “I hate to say this, but we’ll need to stop for gas before we head back. The servants stay so busy with the upkeep of Annabelle’s collection that they forgot to check my gage after my trip up to Silicon Valley.”
“That’s perfectly fine,” Rose said, settling herself into the car and waving to Michael and Blake. “You have such a lovely, helpful police station here.”
“I’m not very well acquainted with them,” Evelyn said, glancing back at the two men. “What do you think of the lieutenant?”
“He’s obviously very good at his job,” Rose said. “An excellent marksman, very thorough.”
“I meant more as a person.”
“Oh, I really don’t know him well enough to say,” Rose said thoughtfully, watching the trees go by out the window. “He’s a gentleman, very charming. Accommodating. Genuinely interested in people.”
Evelyn still frowned at the road.
“Why?” Rose asked. “Do you not like him?”
“No, I only talked to him twice,” Evelyn said, “and both times in conjunction with my father’s death. Has he told you much about his past?”
“Oh, about his childhood, I suppose,” Rose said, chuckling to herself. “He told me about some of the places he grew up. I’ve been to a few of them, and we talked about how beautiful it is around Loch Ness.”
“Tell me about it.”
The rest of the way to the gas station, Rose told Evelyn of her trips to Scotland, and of how lovely the lakes looked in the spring. When they pulled up at the Chevron, Rose glanced out and saw a restroom sign.
“Do you mind if I just use the restroom?” she asked Evelyn. “I hadn’t realized I needed to go until I got in the car.”
Evelyn waved her off absently as she pulled out her wallet and selected premium fuel.
Rose was away for a matter of minutes, three she guessed, but when she exited the restroom and rubbed extra hand sanitizer in for good measure, she saw a very familiar, very rustic lined face trying to talk to Evelyn, who didn’t appear to want a chat.
“Leave me alone, Mr. Hatfield.”
“Evelyn, dear, let’s discuss this rationally,” he said, taking a step closer. Evelyn glared at him, and from the look on her face she was weighing how good of an idea it would be to hit him. “I know you didn’t like how your father ran the business. You and me, we’re more alike than I think you realize.”
He ran a calloused hand up her bare arm, and she actually shoved him away slightly. Rose frowned, glancing through the glass into the convenience store, where a couple of gangly, pimply, male teenaged employees read magazines, waiting for customers. Without a moment to think about it as Luke Hatfield moved closer to Evelyn again, undaunted by her rebuffs, Rose entered the store and marched straight up to the checkout counter.
“Can we help you, ma’am?” one of the boys asked, startled by her very sudden and determined presence. She labeled him in her mind as the blond one, although the way his green eyes bulged from his head was a better – if meaner – distinguishing characteristic, as his coworker’s hair was only a few shades off blond.
“Perhaps,” she said. “My niece is pumping gas and that man is accosting her. Could you please do something?”
They looked out of the window as Luke Hatfield attempted to touch Evelyn’s hair and she tried to shove him away again.
“Hatfield,” the sandy-haired boy said nervously He had twitchy hands, with fingers drumming frantically on the counter. “I can’t, man, my dad works for him.”
“My mom too,” the blond boy said darkly, “but I don’t think I could look her in the eye if she found out I didn’t try something.” The blond boy, who had still been flipping through his magazine, set the magazine down, came around the counter, and grabbed a road flare for good measure. Rose followed him out of the store and over to where the altercation continued.
“And I think a beautiful woman like you,” Hatfield said, and Evelyn turned purple, as her mother had at dinner.
Before she could do or say anything, the boy stepped forward and said, “Mr. Hatfield, sir, I’m going to ask you to leave the lady alone.”
Luke Hatfield looked down at the pockmarked pubescent in front of him holding a road flare and a cell phone and he looked about to laugh. Even Evelyn looked a bit unsure of what to think. Rose, however, possessed full confidence the boy knew more than one might expect. He stood so straight his spine looked like it might be in pain from the unusual position.
“Go back inside and mind your own business, kid,” Luke said, smirking at him.
“Forgive me, sir,” the boy said, puffing his chest up slightly, “but I’m the manager on this shift, and it’s my responsibility to protect the safety and comfort of my clients. Miss Benton and her aunt here are clients, and they’re being harassed, and I’m going to give you a chance to walk away nicely, or you chose between two things.” He raised his hands slightly. Luke Hatfield raised his eyebrows, obviously not sure what the kid meant The boy cleared his throat and continued, “You can choose between my firing this road flare at you in defense of the lady, or my pressing this button and calling the police. We keep them on speed dial.”
Luke tilted his head slightly, obviously trying to decide what to think of this eager young manager.
“Don’t you think you’re overreacting a bit, son?”
“Don’t you think you should respect the lady’s space, sir?”
If Rose loved anything about teenagers, it was the fact she could always count on them to absolutely and unapologetically snarky to their elders, without fail. This one also was clearly raised by a strong woman, which Rose wasn’t sorry about.
Luke Hatfield took a small step back and said, “You wouldn’t set off that flare. You’d likely blow the whole place up, all the gas she just pumped in that car.”
The boy raised his chin defiantly, exposing to their sight a large, pus-filled boil just under his jaw, and said, “Would you like to test that, sir?”
Luke looked from the boy to Rose to Evelyn and back to the boy before he started taking steady steps backward. He looked back to Evelyn and said, “This isn’t over, Evelyn Benton. You’ll be hearing from me again. I will own Benton Tech.”
“You don’t need to sound all maniacal about it,” Evelyn scoffed. “And there’s nothing that could convince me to talk any sort of deal with you, Luke, business or otherwise.”
Rose watched Luke get into his Porsche, the one Annabelle described to her as a mid-life crisis on wheels, and drive away. She thanked the boy and went inside to buy a candy bar as an expression of gratitude, and Rose and Evelyn went back on their way to the house.
“Has he accosted you often?” Rose asked.
“About once a week since Dad died,” Evelyn replied. “Maybe more often. He thinks by seducing me I’ll slip up in negotiations to merger and he’ll end up running both companies. As if he could either seduce me or convince me to start negotiating with him.”
“He tried to talk Annabelle into selling him a couple of cars, actually,” Rose said thoughtfully. “An Alpha and...something that started with a K?”
“The Koenigsegg CCX and her Alpha Romeo Giulietta Sprint Veloce.”
“You’re interested in cars as well?”
Evelyn smiled wryly and shook her head.
“I’ve been going through all of my father’s notes, including all the car notes. He kept meticulously detailed notes on everything, from assets to business to...personal things.” Her eyes darkened. “It’s chilling, really, how much he knew. He kept all of our secrets in there. I know things about my sisters that I never would have guessed.” She exhaled. “And I imagine you know what I tried.”
Rose glanced at Evelyn’s pained face.
“I assume you refer to the vote of no confidence?”
Evelyn’s thin lips twisted into a sick-looking sort of grimace. Then she said, “A stupid thing. Paranoid, selfish. Of course he meant to leave the company to me. Adyson hasn’t worked a day in her life; she hadn’t even finished her degree yet! And when he headed me off he told me that, but I was so blinded by fury and fear at all of the rumors I.... I suppose I’m a bit of a suspect, right?”
“Everyone’s a suspect, Evelyn.”
She daintily licked her bottom lip as they turned up to the house, curving up the long driveway. Rose opened her door when the car came to a stop and when Evelyn didn’t turn off the engine Rose gave her a questioning look.
“I think I’m going for a drive,” she said. “I have some business to attend to in not too long. Tell Mother I’ll probably not be back for dinner, so don’t bother setting a place for me.” Rose said she would and got out of the car, picking up her satchel with her. “Aunt Rose, I hope you’ll find out what really happened soon, and realize there’s no way I could have killed my father.” She gripped the steering wheel a little more tightly, and her voice strained to match her grip as she continued, “We had our differences, but I loved him very much.”
Rose nodded and said, “Drive safe,” before closing the car door and watching Evelyn drive away. She felt an odd, prickling feeling on the back of her neck, like she was being watched by someone, but there was no one there.
“No ghosts in this mansion,” she told herself, teasingly, before a servant let her into the house.