I covered my mouth and nose with a hand as the smell hit me with the force of a Mack truck. I knew that smell. My job as a journalist had put me in more than one situation involving the dead or dying. I turned the corner and entered what was undoubtedly known as “the parlor”. Governor Welling lay motionless on the ground, a small, neat hole drilled through his forehead. I sat down hard on the floor, my legs unwilling to hold me upright. I tried to untangle my emotions as I sat there. I wasn’t exactly sure what I should be feeling, but I was fairly certain it wasn’t the mixture of relief and disgust that roiled through me.
I heard the sound of wailing and it yanked me back to the here and now. I followed it to the back door where a woman in a pale-blue tracksuit sat on the steps, huge gasping sobs shaking her tiny body.
“You’re the one who called me,” I said, knowing this had to be the housekeeper whose panicked voice had pulled me out of a deep sleep. I lowered myself down beside her. “Can you tell me what happened?”
The woman continued to cry, but shook her head vigorously. I laid a hand on her shoulder, hoping this little bit of human contact would calm her. Instead, she flung herself into my arms, her tears creating wet spots on the new silk blazer I had opted for today, rather than my usual simple tee.
Great! I’ll never get anything out of her in this state.
I really didn’t want to do this just yet, but I reached into my pocket and pulled out my cell phone. A tinny feminine voice answered, “Nine-one-one. What is your emergency?”
“I’m reporting a homicide.”
I inched closer on the rough wooden step, afraid any sudden movements might set off another round of wailing and gnashing of teeth. I knew it wouldn’t be long before the scream of sirens assaulted my already tender eardrums, and I didn’t think I could handle that on top of the maid’s sobs. I needn’t have worried, however, because as soon as she realized who I had called, she settled. Apparently, she had a lot more faith in the men in blue than I had. I disconnected and closed my eyes, hoping to shore up my patience. I had to take it easy, or I would lose her again.
“What’s your name?” I asked, trying to keep my voice soft and gentle.
She sniffled a few times and swiped at her red nose with a velour-swathed arm, but managed to whisper, “Bea. Bea Graceton.”
“Okay, Bea. The police are on their way. Everything’s going to be alright.” I’m amazed I was able to say this with a straight face.
She nodded, as a child might when comforted by a parent.
“Do you live here?”
A violent shudder quaked through her. “No, praise God! I come every weekday to cook and clean and do for him.”
“What time did you get here this morning?”
“Eight o’clock, just like always.”
Forty-five minutes ago.
“How did you know to call me? And where did you get my number?”
“Your father,” she said. “He told me you were the one to call if anything ever happened.”
“He knew how to reach me?” I asked, surprised.
“He made me store your number, so I wouldn’t forget it.”
“Huh.” I had assumed I would be the last person Adam Welling would list as his “ICE” contact. I guess it’s slim pickin’s when you piss off the entire state of Virginia. “Did he tell you what he thought might happen?”
She gave a snort. “No. I’m just the maid.”
I caught the bitter edge to her voice. “You didn’t like him much, did you?”
She looked up at me, and the light breeze lifted away her lank, nut-colored hair so that I could read the mixture of horror and pleading on her splotchy face. “I didn’t mean it like that. He was a good boss, just . . . uninterested.”
“It’s okay,” I reassured the woman, who was trembling and pale beneath the mottled red. “I didn’t like him much, either.”
Before I could attempt to use our newfound rapport to learn anything more from Bea, I could hear those sirens building to a crescendo that screeched to a stop on the oak-lined street in front of the house.
She jumped to her feet and scurried around the corner. I also rose, only I was considering heading in the opposite direction. I really hated talking to the cops.
I sighed and followed her onto the front lawn. I knew from experience they’d just hunt me down.
Even though the governor was no longer alive to scold, I saw that Bea took the more circuitous route on the stone pathway rather than trample the lush, jade-green grass. I did the same, in no real hurry to speak to the two uniformed officers climbing from their vehicle.
“You reported a homicide?” the taller of the two men asked flatly. For all the energy he expended, he might have been asking if we called for a cab. Leafy tree branches created a play of shadows, so I couldn’t read his expression, but his partner’s face was screwed up in a frown. I guess we had severely cut into his donut time. Actually, I decided, he could use a few donuts. His belt was drawn tightly, causing his pants to bunch where they were cinched around his skinny hips, and his shirt cuffs gapped around his delicate wrists.
“Yeah,” I said looking back to the senior officer, and Bea nodded vigorously.
“Is there anyone inside?”
“Not living,” I answered.
“Where’s the body?”
“Okay,” he said. “You ladies stay here while Bob and I take a look.”
“You don’t need me,” I pointed out. “It’s not my house and I didn’t find the body.”
I really, really wanted to get out of here and put this nightmare behind me. I began backing away from the trio.
“Hey!” Skinny Bob shouted, and I froze as he placed his hand on the butt of his gun. For God’s sake! Was this walking stick actually going to shoot me?
Mr. Personality gave his hot-headed partner a look and the man dropped his arm back to his side.
“Ma’am, you’re going to have to wait right here until the detectives arrive. It’s hot out, and getting hotter, so after we secure the crime scene, we’ll all go inside.”
No! Not back into that house of horrors.
The man must have read something on my face, or maybe on Bea’s, because he quickly added, “Not into the parlor, of course. We’ll keep you as far away from the body as possible. It’s not ideal, I know, but you’ll be far more comfortable in there than outside in the sun.”
Nothing would be more uncomfortable than going back inside; memories far more painful than murder lived in there. But before I could correct him, he turned away and he and his lap dog stalked across the lawn in the direction of the front door. It would have been so easy for me to get into my car and drive away, forget everything that had happened this morning. But before I had taken that first step, he shouted out to me, “Don’t go gettin’ any ideas about leaving, Ms. Wells. If I have to track you down, you’re shitty day is going to get a whole lot worse.”
I sat in the kitchen, a stainless steel and tile cavern that would have given any chef worth his puffy hat wet dreams. I glanced at the pricey designer clock on the wall. I had been sitting on my ass for an hour waiting for the detective to interrogate me. An hour spent going over key moments in a childhood spent in this house. I remembered my fifth birthday, when the governor had given me the most beautiful doll I had ever seen. Maggie, it came back to me. I had named her Maggie. I searched for other happy moments, but I couldn’t find them, and nothing at all involving Gloria. The sadness I hadn’t been able to feel before now slammed into my chest, but it wasn’t for the governor. It was sorrow for that little girl. She was the one that deserved my pity, after all, not the heartless man lying on the floor, his blood staining the plush white carpet.
Then something else pushed its way into my brain. It was the image of a little girl standing over me with a dispassionate stare. It was the same look I imagine had been on my own face as I looked down at the governor’s body. My breath caught hard and my hands began to shake, so I shoved the image aside just as I heard quick footsteps clicking down the hall.
I had covered dozens of crimes over the years and had met countless members of Virginia’s finest, but I had never met one who looked like the man who appeared in the doorway. He was tall, six foot easy, and more. He had dark hair that he wore long on top, emphasizing strong cheekbones. His skin was bronze and his eyes were a shade of green that rivaled the perfectly landscaped lawn. Jeans were slung low on his narrow hips and a black tee stretched tightly over broad shoulders. Yum! Too bad he was a cop.
“Ms. Welling,” he said in a voice that held a honeyed trace of the Deep South, “I’m sorry for your loss.” He held out his large hand and I felt a tingle shiver up my spine as his skin, warm and calloused, stroked mine. “Detective Jason Anders.”
As I slowly pulled back, I noticed that I had bitten my fingernails down to the quick. Great, I thought I had kicked that habit.
“Wells,” I corrected. “It’s Miss Wells.”
His eyebrows rose.
“I had it legally changed. Can you blame me?”
A thin smile crossed that handsome face. “No, I guess not, journalistic integrity and all that.”
Louisiana. I identified his accent before I registered the bite in his tone. So, he didn’t like journalists. Well, I guess that made us even.
“Okay, Miss Wells, I am sorry.”
I shrugged. “We were estranged. Had been for years.”
Why was I volunteering information? I had let myself get distracted by lust. If he wanted to know something, he could damn well ask!
His face remained impassive, but I could sense disapproval coming off him in waves.
“You called this in, but you weren’t the one who discovered the body, correct?”
He waited a beat, but when I said nothing more, he continued. “The maid found him when she came in to work this morning and called you, not the police.”
I said nothing, as he was stating a fact rather than asking a question.
“Why do you suppose she called you first?”
“Apparently the governor drilled it into her head that she should call me in case of emergency.”
“And yet, you were estranged. Had been for years.”
I felt like a swarm of bees was buzzing under my skin. “Look, I have no idea why the governor would do that, or why the maid didn’t call you first.”
“Okay,” he said, dropping that particular thread. “What did you do when you found the body?”
“Let’s see,” I said, putting my fingers to my temple in mock concentration. “First, I walked around handling everything, but I decided that wasn’t quite enough to screw up your crime scene, so I spit in a few places for good measure. Scattered a few bodily fluids around.” Even I knew I was being a bitch, but I really disliked Detective Hottie’s attitude.
He sighed heavily and gave me a look that practically screamed he was running out of patience. “Miss Wells, all that you’re managing to accomplish here is to convince me that you have less maturity than my five-year-old. Please, just answer the question so we can move on.”
A worm of shame wriggled in my belly. I hated it, but there it was.
“I could tell he was dead, so I didn’t touch him, or anything else. I heard the maid crying and went outside, called you.”
“You didn’t go through the house, conduct your own investigation?” he asked, doubt coloring his voice.
“Okay,” he said, but I could tell he didn’t believe me. “So, when, exactly, was the last time you spoke with your father?”
“August fifteenth, two-thousand one.”
He looked up at me, eyes narrowed. “You know the date?”
“You said ’exactly,” I said with a smug smile.
“And you remember this why?”
“It was the day I was declared legally emancipated.”
“I see,” he said, but I knew he didn’t. He couldn’t possibly know what that mixture of relief and terror had felt like to a sixteen-year-old who suddenly wasn’t so sure she wanted the freedom she had so desperately craved.
“Did either he or your mother try to contact you in the years following?”
Crap! I didn’t want to go into any of the details of my relationship with my dysfunctional family. There was nothing to be gained from it, except bringing up a lot of unresolved anger, but he wasn’t going to give up.
“The governor sent a few e-mails after he got out of prison, and again after Gloria died, but I never replied.”
“What did he want?”
“What makes you think I read them?” I asked.
He just gave me that look I was beginning to know all too well.
I sighed. “He was sorry to have let me down, wanted to reconnect, blah, blah, blah.”
“And you weren’t interested.”
I could hear my voice rising, hear my words becoming fast and sharp, but I couldn’t rein it in. “He wasn’t interested in me for the first twenty-three years of my life, so, no, I wasn’t interested in him.”
What was wrong with me? I didn’t have to justify my feelings to this man, badge or no.
“You certainly seem to be carrying around a lot of emotion for someone who’s so uninterested,” he said.
“That’s none of your business.” I could feel my face burn, so I took a couple of slow, deep breaths. “Look,” I continued once I felt more like myself, “I haven’t seen or spoken to the governor in fourteen years, and I haven’t heard from him in at least five.”
“How did your mother die?”
I gulped back the revulsion that particular memory dredged up. “A fire. She was killed in a hotel fire.”
There was pity on his face, which I detested.
“Again, I’m sorry,” he said.
He sighed and looked down at the page of notes he held in his large hand.
“So, you don’t know any of your father’s friends of acquaintances? Know if any of them had an ax to grind?”
“Why would I know that?”
“I don’t know, maybe because he was your father? Maybe because his maid had your number on speed dial?”
“And since there were no signs of forced entry, you think it was someone he knew,” I reasoned.
“Do you still have the e-mails he sent you?”
I stared at him, unwilling to admit that I did. He didn’t say a word or look away – the man could have been chiseled from stone. I didn’t want to stand here all day feeling like a bug under glass, so I finally gave in. “Yes, I still have them. I suppose you want to see them.”
“I do,” he stated. “And anything else you may have received from him or anyone acquainted with him.”
“No problem.” I stood. I had to get out of here before I told this gorgeous, infuriating cop my entire sob story. “There’s really nothing more I can give you, and I really need to get to work.”
He didn’t want to let me go, I could tell by the way he hesitated, but he also knew that he was wasting his time. And he didn’t like me.
“Fine, you can go. Just don’t go far; we will be continuing this conversation in the very near future.” His eyes were now as hard as emeralds, with the same cold glitter. Nope, he didn’t like me at all.
“Oh, and Miss Wells, if I see one word of this in the Newsman, you’ll be answering my questions from a jail cell.”
I felt a little prickle of pride that he knew the magazine that often ran my articles. What did that say about me? I probably really didn’t want to know. In any event, I had no intention of writing about anything I had seen this morning. I only wanted to get as far away from it all as I possibly could.
I relished the feel of the fresh breeze on my over-heated skin as I stepped out of that monstrous house and into the sunshine. After allowing myself a few moments to take in the warm rays, I started feeling better. I didn’t like what had happened to me in there; I never lose my cool. Damn it! I had to get my professional distance. This was the murder of a disgraced politician. The crime was going to be a huge story, and I had to get my head in the game. I don’t know what I had been thinking. Of course, I would write this story. I couldn’t let the fact that he was my biological father get in the way. I thought, once again, of that little girl and the smile on her father’s face as he watched her clutch the birthday doll to her chest. I was shocked to feel the sting of tears. No matter how awful he was, I realized there was only one way I was going to be able to make peace with what had happened this morning. I was going to find out who murdered him. I marched down the long, winding drive to where my white 1999 Ford Taurus was parked on the street. Detective Anders would be here for quite some time, giving me a good head start, and I was going to take full advantage of it.