I stood for a moment outside the shiny glass doors of the sleek ten-story building that housed Bowler & Brothers. I needed to catch my breath after racing the five blocks I had traveled from the garage, since the gated lot was “permit-only”. Why hadn’t I thought to ask about the parking situation? I looked down at my sturdy, flat boots. Thank God I wasn’t a stiletto kind of girl. I wondered if Anders went for the phony, high-maintenance type. Probably not, I decided. He seemed like a man who enjoyed getting his hands dirty, maybe in more ways than one.
These thoughts were certainly not helping slow my heart rate, so I pretended I was watching a round of golf until a yawn nearly split my face in half. Worked like a charm.
I pushed open the door and was met with a swirl of cool air and vanilla musk. The faux marble lobby was empty and my steps echoed as I moved toward the bank of elevators on the opposite side of the room. The ride up to the top was interminable but, at long last, I was walking over the threshold.
“Jessie Wells for Grant Estes,” I announced to the suited woman who sat stiffly in the chair behind an old-fashioned mahogany desk. This had to be Miss Priss. Her thin lips pursed into a moue of distaste, but she picked up the phone and within seconds, I was being ushered behind her and into a small office.
Wowza! He was standing, so I could see that he was tall – at least six-four or -five – and lean. His skin was the color of hot chocolate and his almond-shaped eyes were golden. He wore his dark, wavy hair cropped close to the scalp, and a sexy scruff roughened his high cheekbones.
What on earth was going on? Hot guys were popping up everywhere this week! Maybe it was a sign that I really needed to get laid. Or maybe not, I thought, as my eyes fell on a picture of Mr. Estes with his arm around another beautiful young man in what was obviously a wedding photo.
“Ms. Wells,” he said, extending his hand and gripping mine with his slim, cool fingers. “Thank you for coming.”
“You’re welcome,” I replied as I sat in a chair in front of his desk. “So why is it that you wanted to see me?”
“I was under the impression that it was you who wanted to speak with me,” he said, also taking his seat.
“True,” I admitted, “but your bossy-pants receptionist stonewalled me until I told her who I was. Suddenly, she couldn’t do enough for me. Why is that?”
He smiled, showing off perfect, white teeth. “Because my bossy-pants receptionist knows how much time I spent trying to get your father to tell me the whole story.”
“The whole story?” I echoed. “You don’t think he was telling you the truth.”
“On the contrary, I believe everything he said to me was true.”
“And what, exactly, was it he told you?” I asked, determined to come away with more information than I surrendered.
Estes sighed and ran a hand over his head. “He told me a pretty far-fetched story about being framed.”
“But you believed him?”
“No,” he said. “I thought he was just looking to cash in, a la O.J., but, to be brutally honest, a best-seller would be a huge boost for me. I had no doubt people would want to read his side of the story.”
“So, what changed your mind?”
“He just seemed so damned earnest,” he replied, looking at me as if hoping I would confirm the governor’s innocence.
“He’s a politician.”
“I know, but he never wavered, not once. And then the murder . . .”
“Did the governor ever share with you any proof that he was innocent?”
“No. He promised to, when the time was right. I didn’t really think it existed, but now?” He raised his shoulders in an elegant shrug. “I just don’t know.”
“Did he tell you who framed him?” I asked.
“No, he claimed he didn’t know.”
“Did he suspect anyone?”
“He suspected a lot of people,” Estes answered, “but he refused to name names, at least for the most part.”
My heart kicked up a beat. “What do you mean?”
“He let one name slip, Orson Jenkins, CEO of Staunton, Incorporated.”
“One of the companies he was accused of being involved with,” I said, my mind racing. “The one that employed Bronson Elroy. But why would he want to frame my father?”
“Well, Jenkins wasn’t charged with anything, despite Elroy’s accusations. It was too hard to make anything stick, even though he was the catalyst that brought down five other corporations. Maybe he did it to take the heat off of himself and the person who was really granting him all those favors.”
“And,” I added, a new tickle of excitement crawling up my back, “that person would have to be in a position to make them happen.”
“How well did you know the members of your father’s staff?” he asked.
“Not nearly as well as I’m going to,” I said. In fact, I was going to get to know a whole lot of people better, starting with Orson Jenkins.
“Thank you for your time,” I said, standing, suddenly as anxious to leave as I had been to arrive.
“Of course,” he said. “I can’t help feeling that if I had taken your father’s story seriously, things may have turned out much differently.”
“There’s no way to know,” I told him. “But you’ve given me some new threads to tug, and one of them just may lead to a murderer.”
I all but flew out of Estes’ office, but stopped short in front of the elevator. Damn! The car was on the ninth floor and headed down to the lobby. I watched as it stopped on number eight and held there for what had to have been five whole minutes before resuming its journey. It halted at seven. To hell with this! I would be covered in cobwebs by the time it came to collect me. I spotted a door that I hoped would lead to the stairwell and shoved it open. Bingo! Nine flights of stairs? Piece of cake.
I soon realized I had been overly optimistic in evaluating my level of physical fitness. My thighs were screaming and my breath was coming in short, hard pants by the time I reached the ground floor. And that was from going down. I shuddered to think what it must be like to climb up Mount Bowler & Brothers. But I had made it; now I just had to sprint five blocks. Okay, sprinting probably wasn’t going to happen, but I wasn’t about to stop now.
I half-jogged, half-walked to my car and sank into the cushioned seat with a groan. I was definitely going to have to start working out with Gail. No, bad idea. Gail would kick my ass. I’d check out some fitness videos at the library.
Having resolved this issue to my satisfaction, I rocketed out of the parking garage – after paying what would probably have kept a small island nation going for a whole year – and sped out of Norfolk. Traffic was light and I reached the headquarters of Staunton, Inc.at three-thirty, well before closing time.
“I need to speak with Orson Jenkins,” I informed the avuncular man guarding a wine-and-mahogany vestibule that reminded me of an old-fashioned gentleman’s club. “And no,” I said as he opened his mouth to speak, “I don’t have an appointment.”
“Then I’m afraid you’ll have to come back another time,” he stated. “Mr. Jenkins is currently in a meeting.” He began tapping away at his keyboard. “I’m sure he can squeeze you in sometime next month.”
“He’s going to squeeze me in now,” I insisted, stepping around the corner of the behemoth of a desk he sat behind.
“Young lady!” the man bellowed, rising and grabbing my right arm in a meaty hand.
“You do not want to touch me,” I warned, fixing him with the glare of death I had been practicing in my bedroom mirror for years. With my left hand, I held up the press badge I had slung around my neck. “And if you don’t want a ten-page expose in Time Magazine revisiting Staunton’s sordid past and connection with the murdered former governor of Virginia, I suggest you get your boss on the phone right now.”
He dropped my arm and picked up the phone, looking far less kindly. After a terse conversation, he jerked his thumb in the direction I had been heading.
“Thank you.” I smiled as I breezed past him and through a door that had just been opened.
Jenkins looked at me with eyes as cold and hard as the glass desktop supporting his top-notch computer and various stacks of paper and file folders. I had anticipated rage, or even annoyance, but I saw neither. However, I knew very well the only reason security wasn’t tossing me out was because Mr. CEO didn’t want the bad publicity I would give him.
“Why are you here, Ms. Wells?” he asked, not wasting time on introductions.
I steeled myself. “I’m sure you’ve heard about the death of Governor Welling.”
“I have. What does that have to do with me?”
I studied his face for any hint of nervousness when I mentioned the murder, but got nothing.
“You were involved in the scandal that put the governor behind bars. Can you tell me what happened?”
I knew the details as recorded in the file, but my goal was to judge his reaction, to see if I could break that icy calm. It worked. For maybe a second, definitely no more than two, I saw anger in his face. He was good at shutting it down, but it was there.
“I’m not going to discuss that with you, Ms. Wells. If that’s your only purpose for being here, then I wish you good day.”
He dropped into his plush captain’s chair and swiveled to his keyboard, obviously expecting me to leave without protest.
“Mr. Jenkins,” I persisted, “the governor’s death could have something to do with the corruption charges leveled against him. Any light you can shed on your dealings with him could help lead us to the killer.”
I hoped using the word “us” rather than “I” would imply I was being supported by some type of authority.
Jenkins turned back to me, and now his eyes were blazing. Be careful what you wish for.
“I want you to get out of my office, Ms. Wells. If you are not gone in ten seconds, I will have you escorted out. My company was dragged through the mud on a regular basis for ten years. It took a great deal of hard work to keep it from going under and we’re finally putting that behind us.”
Now he was more than angry. I could see his hands shaking before he clenched both fists tightly on the arms of his fancy chair.
“I will not have you opening old wounds. I was cleared of any wrongdoing, as you well know, and all my conversations with Governor Welling’s man have absolutely nothing to do with any criminal activity, whether it be twenty years ago or this week. Now. Get. Out.”
I took my time walking back to the car, mulling over every detail of my conversation with Jenkins. The wind had strengthened while we had been chatting, and I had to pick strands of hair out of my lip balm. A paper cup skittered down the street and crunched under my boot, as I was too preoccupied to step over it.
The man had been royally pissed, to put it mildly. I had expected him to be defensive, even hostile, but his overreaction was very telling. Here was yet another player who was hiding something. It could be as simple as the fact that he had been guilty of fraud, which he undoubtedly was. It could also be that he was a murderer. Or it could be somewhere in-between. So much for my powers of deductive reasoning. Or was it inductive? In any event, I needed to talk to some of my father’s staff members to see if they knew anything.
I was so lost in my thoughts that I bumped into the Taurus.
“Shit,” I muttered out loud, rubbing my shin where it had struck the bumper. I was bending over to inspect the damage done to my leg when I noticed a white envelope stuck beneath the windshield wiper. I plucked it free and tossed it into the passenger’s seat as I settled behind the wheel. I was certain it contained an ad, but it was strange that there was nothing printed on the outside. I picked it back up and ripped it open. A single quartered piece of paper fell out onto my lap. It held two stark sentences:
LEAVE IT ALONE.
DO YOU WANT TO DIE?
I stared at the page, trying to make sense of what I was reading. Was it a warning or a threat? And why now? Which line of questioning had made someone that uncomfortable? Should I call the police?
Odds were Mr. or Ms. Anonymous was just trying to scare me off. I doubted I was in any real danger, and I could take care of myself. Did I really need to risk getting Anders involved?
Now the anger hit, hard and fast. I didn’t want Anders barging in on my investigation. Having him around was both infuriating and distracting, and I really didn’t need either right now. And damn it if a little thrill of anticipation didn’t shiver through the fury as I thought about seeing him again.
No, I decided. I wasn’t in any real danger, and I didn’t need anyone getting in my way by trying to protect me, especially not Anders. The fact that I wanted to see him, despite everything, was just more proof that I needed to keep as far away from him as possible.
I crumpled the paper and tossed it onto the floorboard. If someone thought I would scare that easily, they didn’t know me at all. I was going to find out who murdered my father, and they were the ones who were going to find out what it meant to be afraid.
I drove home consumed with indignation. I rehearsed in my head what I would say to the threat-sender when we met, but nothing I could come up with adequately conveyed the depth of my disdain.
The practice did make me feel better, and I was calm by the time I sat down and fired up my laptop, I was calm enough to concentrate on researching my father’s gubernatorial cadre. After thirty minutes, however, I was back on my feet pacing and hurling insults at the stupid hunk of plastic and wire that was thwarting my best efforts.
“Damn you,” I sighed, winding down. I dropped to the sofa and flung my head back against the headrest. Apparently, no one cared to advertise their former relationship with a convicted felon. I couldn’t blame them – not great for a political career, I didn’t imagine. I couldn’t find a single reference to anyone he worked with and no idea where to go from here.
Candace Pinkston. The name came to me out of nowhere. Candace Pinkston had been my father’s personal secretary. I remembered my mother’s jealous accusations that he spent more time with “Candy” than with his family. I also remembered her insinuations that there was more than work going on at their numerous meetings. Knowing my father, there probably was. In any event, Ms. Pinkston would know every member of his staff.
It was easy to find information once I had a name to work with. Ms. Pinkston was now a secretary for a small law firm in Kentworth, Alabama. I looked at my watch. It was closing in on seven; too late to catch her at work today. I chafed at the delay, but it would give me time to think about my approach. I was feeling a bit apprehensive about speaking with the woman my father had relied upon and my mother had despised. If I could get the information any other way, I would avoid this particular confrontation, but I didn’t want to waste time going through slower channels.
I closed the computer and picked up the phone. I wouldn’t be able to reach anyone in Kentworth, so it was time for takeout.