“Hello officers,” Elroy said with an expansive smile as he ushered Jason and Dillon into his office.
“Detectives,” Jason corrected with an edge to his voice. He knew his dislike for the smug bastard was evident, but didn’t really care. He pushed his way past the man, leaving Dillon to follow behind. Elroy, however, gave no indication that he had picked up on the disdain that oozed from Jason’s, thick as molasses.
“Please, have a seat,” Elroy said, and damned if the man wasn’t preening at the attention. “I assume this is about that reporter who persecuted me yesterday.”
“Persecuted?” Jason echoed. “That’s a rather strong word, don’t you think?”
“Not under the circumstances,” he said. “She was wantonly disrespectful.”
“Wantonly,” Jason said. “Another interesting word choice. So, tell me, Mr. Elroy, what was she persecuting you about with such wanton disrespect?”
“What’ isn’t relevant,” he answered, momentary anger flashing in his gray eyes as he realized this wasn’t going the way he had envisioned. “It’s your job to investigate her misconduct.”
“Actually, it isn’t,” Jason said, challenging the older man with his hard gaze. “It’s our job to investigate a homicide.”
Now his fury spread, staining his entire face crimson. “What are you talking about?” he demanded. “Why would you come to me about the Welling murder?”
“Why would you assume it’s the Welling case we’re here about?” Jason countered.
“Because I’m not stupid. It’s the only major homicide case in Virginia right now, and I have a history with the victim.”
“You’ve answered your own question, then.”
“I have nothing to add to your investigation. If that’s all you came here to talk about, you’ve wasted your time and mine.”
“Well, sir,” Jason said, leaning back into the chair and resting his hands behind his head, “it just so happens that I have a little time to waste and a few questions to ask.
“Such as?” Elroy said.
“Such as why you and Jenkins became such pals right before you blew the whistle on him.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Really? I find that strange, since it’s common knowledge among the former Staunton employees that the two of you had become thick as thieves. Odd pairing, the two of you, what with him being CEO and you being a lowly manager.”
“Account manager,” Elroy said with an offended glare, “and my position was far from lowly.”
“Be that as it may,” Jason said, “it strikes me as strange that the two of you had so much to talk about.”
“Am I under arrest?” he asked. “Because if not, I’m going to ask you to leave. And I’m only asking once.”
“Did you hear that?” Dillon spoke for the first time. “I think Mr. Elroy here just threatened us.”
“I most certainly did not. I was simply warning you that I plan to call security and have you physically removed, as I would any other trespassers.”
Jason gave the angry little man an indifferent look that belied the determination that formed, solid as stone, under his skin. He would get answers from this bon rien who had terrified Starla Lott and tried to take Jessie out of the game by throwing his political weight around. It was time to play hardball.
“Mr. Elroy,” he said, standing, “I’m placing you under arrest for obstruction of justice in the investigation of the murder of former governor Adam Welling.”
Dillon’s eyebrows shot up as he looked to his partner.
“Read him his rights, Dillon.”
“Now wait just a minute,” Elroy blustered. “You can’t do this!”
“Watch me.” Jason pulled his steel cuffs from his back pocket.
“Okay,” Elroy said, pushing his chair back and putting more distance between himself and the two men. “You want to talk, we’ll talk, but I’m not saying one word until my lawyer gets here.”
“Damn it, Elroy!” Jason banged his fist on the desk in frustration. “I need answers now.”
“Hey,” Dillon put a hand to his partner’s shoulder. “Easy.”
Jason took a breath. Dillon was right. He couldn’t risk the integrity of the investigation by strong-arming Elroy. He was going to have to be patient if he was to get what he needed from the stubborn ass.
“Fine,” he said, sinking back down into the chair. “Make the call.”
An hour later, Jason sat at a table in a small conference room. Dillon sat to his right and Elroy was directly across, flanked by a tall, gaunt woman in a black suit and cat-eye glasses.
“My client has agreed to speak with you only about matters pertaining to his departure from Staunton, Incorporated in 2001. He will not answer any questions beyond that time frame unless there is a compelling reason for him to do so. He will not answer any questions I deem an unreasonable fishing expedition. I have counseled him, as I am you, that the statute of limitations for the crime of extortion is five years. Therefore, any charges you may bring regarding crimes during this period of time will be null and void.”
“Extortion?” Jason said. “What have you been up to, Mr. Elroy?”
“Don’t answer that,” snapped the lawyer, whose name, he had learned, was Ms. Friend.
“Why are you and your client here, Ms. Friend, if you don’t intend for him to tell me anything?” Jason asked.
“My client will give you his prepared statement,” she answered, unperturbed. “He will consider answering pertinent questions when he has finished.”
“How generous of him,” Jason said.
“A prepared statement? That was fast,” his partner added.
“Yes,” Ms. Friend said, her fuchsia lips thinning. “And I’d like to see the rest of this interview go just as quickly. Shall we begin?”
“By all means,” Jason said, turning back to his prey. “Let’s hear this statement of yours, Elroy.”
The man in question shifted in his seat. The page he held shook as he slid a pair of cheaters onto his nose.
“In 2001, I was employed as an account manager at Staunton, Incorporated. In the course of performing my duties, I discovered information about an illegal deal between Staunton and the office of the governor of the state of Virginia. The burden of this knowledge caused severe emotional distress that made it impossible for me to think clearly. In my unwell state, I approached both Mr. Jenkins and Governor Welling and asked for monetary compensation for refraining from making said information public. Both parties refused.”
Elroy removed his glasses, laid the paper on the table, and stared silently at both men sitting across from him.
“My client has nothing more to say,” Ms. Friend said
“That’s it?” Jason asked. “I attempted to blackmail two of the most powerful men in the state, the end.”
“As I said, my client is finished,” the lawyer repeated.
Jason felt pain shoot through his jaw and realized he was clenching his teeth so tightly he could actually hear them squeak as they rubbed together. He stared at the self-proclaimed beacon of his city’s hope. “You’re a slimy bastard,” he hissed, “with no morals and no shame. You’re guilty of blackmail, what else are you guilty of?”
“That’s enough, Detective,” Ms. Friend snapped. “We are done here, and I am now going to insist that you and your partner leave this office.”
“I’m not finished with you, Elroy,” Jason said with barely contained rage. “You’d better hope that blackmail is the only crime you have ever and will ever commit in your sad excuse for a life. If I find that you’ve so much as crossed the street against the light, I’m going to make sure you never see the sun again.”
He turned to Dillon. “C’mon, let’s get out of here.”
“So, what’s your take on this?” his partner asked as Jason straight-armed the door open and stomped down the steps. “Do you really think he’s innocent?”
“There’s nothing innocent about that man.”
“Okay,” Dillon agreed, “he’s a douche bag, but do you think he’s a homicidal douche bag?”
“I think Mr. Elroy is capable of just about anything, and I’m sure as hell going to find out if that includes murder.”
“Schuller and Scott, Attorneys at Law. How may I direct your call?”
“Candace Pinkston?” I asked, and was greeted with a beat of silence.
“This is Ms. Pinkston,” she finally answered.
“My name is Jessica Welling,” I said, knowing the use of my old surname was a risk, but I wanted to throw her off balance. “I need to talk to you about my father’s staff during his time in office.”
The silence stretched so long I was afraid she had hung up.
The sound of my voice apparently jarred her out of whatever shocked state she had been in, because she was quick to respond this time. “I have nothing to say to you.”
“Are you aware the governor has been murdered?” I asked, hoping mention of his death would keep her from ending the call. If she wouldn’t talk to me, I was going to have to drive down there, and I really didn’t have the time to waste.
“I am,” she answered.
“Then you know how important it is that you speak with me.”
“I know no such thing. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have work to get back to.”
“Wait,” I said, “I just need the names of my father’s staff.” Her impressions of them could be helpful, but I didn’t want to push it, and for all I knew, she could be the one who was making shady deals behind my father’s back.
“That was years ago. I don’t remember.”
“Of course you do. You knew every facet of my father’s life. You basically ran things for those three years.” That was a guess, but I felt it was a pretty safe one to make.
“I’m not going to engage in gossip. That time is long over, and I won’t throw dirt on anyone just to satisfy salacious curiosity.”
“This is about far more than curiosity, and you know it,” I insisted. I had to get this woman to talk to me, and she had just given me an idea. “And if you don’t, I’m going to do more than sling a little dirt. I’m a reporter, Candy, and I’ll have no trouble at all finding an audience. I’ll make sure to devote a lot of time to my memories of my father’s right-hand-man, or woman, in this case. How do you think your employers will feel about that, Candy? Do you think they’ll still trust you? Will their clients still trust you?”
I heard a sharp hiss as she sucked in her breath. “You can’t do that to me, not after all I’ve been through. It took me years to put that all behind me. I won’t be able to do it again.”
“Then you’d better talk to me,” I said in a cold tone that gave no hint of the guilt that was curling in my belly. I hated myself for what I was doing, but I had to know who worked with my father, and Candace Pinkston was my best bet for getting that information. If I didn’t play this card, a murderer could go free.
“I need that list, Candy,” I said again.
“Fine,” she snapped. Give me your e-mail address and then get the hell off the phone and out of my life.”
I didn’t get the list until evening – Candace probably didn’t want to use her work computer for such distasteful correspondence. In between bouts of pacing, I made use of the intervening hours. I had put in another call to Gail, digging the debt hole even deeper. She gave me the names and addresses of Staunton employees who worked with Elroy, so I considered it worth the price of a dozen white-chocolate, cranberry, macadamia-nut cookies.
I spent the next few hours alternately combing through the roster and checking my e-mail. It finally came through at six-thirty. I was looking for familiar names when Etta shattered the stillness. It was another unfamiliar number, and I felt a mixture of excitement and trepidation as I pushed “talk”.
“Jessie Wells,” I said.
“Hello, Ms. Wells. My name is Drake Milston. I understand that you’ve been looking for information about your father’s time in the governor’s office.”
Every muscle in my body went rigid. I had seen Milston on Candace’s list, but I couldn’t remember what role he had played. “How did you get my number?” I asked, scanning the names.
“There’s not need to get upset,” he said in a voice as rich and supple as worn leather. “I’m calling to offer you my assistance.”
There! He had been one of my father’s five policy advisors. “Well, Mr. Milston, what is it you think you can do for me?”
“As you know, I was a member of your father’s staff. I’d like to offer my services as a character reference. I can give you insight into their personalities. Between the two of us, perhaps we can decide if one of them is guilty of anything.”
“That’s a generous offer, Mr. Milston. Forgive me if I seem ungrateful, but why, exactly, are you willing to do this?” What the hell did this man want?
“I should think that would be obvious. I want to learn the truth, the same as you.”
“My family was ruined by allegations that may have been a lie and, fifteen years later, I found the body of my murdered father, shot down in cold blood. I doubt our motivations are even remotely similar.”
“I’m sure your ordeal has been harrowing. However, to refuse my offer would be foolish.”
I could hear the tension in his voice mounting.
“And how do I know I can trust you and your opinions?” I said.
“Because I knew your father and his people well. You really need to listen to what I have to say, Ms. Wells. Refuse me, and I won’t be making the offer again.”
I really didn’t like the tone of this guy’s voice, beautiful though it was, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t be a valuable resource. “Okay,” I relented. “What can you tell me?”
“Meet me at Skeeter’s tomorrow evening at seven. I’ll go over the list with you.”
With that, he hung up. Skeeter’s wasn’t exactly an upscale bar, but it wasn’t a hovel, either. It was a busy place, and I wasn’t worried about meeting Milston there. I was worried about his strange overture, though. I had no doubt that Candace had contacted him. That was the only way he could have known what I was up to. They must have stayed in touch over the years. Why? Were they truly interested in seeking justice, or was something else at play? Now I had even more questions, and two more suspects to add to the list.
I decided to call Cara. She might recognize some of the names, or know if my father had been in contact with any of them. She answered on the first ring.
“Jessie!” she exclaimed, her voice sharp with impatience. “Have you learned something?”
“It’s only been a couple of days,” I reminded her. “But I’m working on some stuff.”
“Stuff?” Disappointment clung to the word like my needy high-school boyfriend.
“Yeah,” I said, “and I need to know if you’ve met any of my father’s former staff.”
“Not that I can remember,” she said. “Adam didn’t talk about his past at all until he got it into his head to write that damn book.”
“Did he reach out to anyone or mention anyone?”
“I don’t know,” she replied. “I didn’t meet any of his friends and he never spoke of his former employees, at least not that I’m aware of. I wouldn’t have recognized their names.”
Now it was my turn to be disappointed, but I wasn’t ready to call it quits. “Can I come over? I have a list I’d like you to take a look at.”
“Absolutely. I’ve been going out of my mind just sitting here.”
“I’ll be there in an hour and a half,” I said before disconnecting.
I wondered if I was wasting my time. I doubted my father had shared too much with his girlfriend, but I was learning that he wasn’t as predictable as I had once thought. Better to follow up on all leads, no matter how tenuous. I shoved my phone in my pocket, grabbed my keys, and headed out the door.
It took me a little over two hours to get to Cara’s. An accident on the freeway meant traffic had been stop-and-go for twenty miles before I hit the Kingsdale exit. I had called and then texted Cara to let her know I was running late, but she hadn’t responded. Odd, considering how eager she had been for me to visit, but I figured she was probably on the phone playing Flowers and Monsters or something.
Finally, I arrived at my destination and knocked loudly on the front door. I stepped back, expecting Cara to answer right away. After a minute, I tried again. Still no answer. Lights blazed in the windows and the Corvette was in the drive. It was possible she gave up on me and left with someone, but that didn’t seem likely. I wasn’t that late, and I had the impression that she didn’t have many friends in town. I redialed her number and it rang several times before going to voicemail. I was starting to get worried.
“Cara!” I called, now pounding on the door.
I moved to the large front window to my right. The empty sofa changed from red to blue to green as the glow of the TV screen bathed it in alternating colors. I didn’t see any hint of movement.
“Cara!” I banged on the window.
“Shit.” I pulled a slim metal tool from my pocket and in a few seconds, I was inside. The smell that hit me took me right back to the governor’s house four days ago.
“No,” I whispered. “Oh, no.”
I was only able to take a few steps into the living room before I bolted out the door and threw up in the bushes. I had seen more than enough. Cara Montgomery was lying on her back, eyes wide in shock or fear, a bullet hole neatly drilled into the center of her forehead.