Jason was thinking about Elroy, Jessie, and the unholy mess this case had become when he opened his front door and was nearly toppled by the tempête who hurled herself at him, tears streaming down her tiny face.
“She’s gone, Daddy!” the little girl cried, burying her head in the crook of his neck when he knelt down to her level. “Mouse’s gone.”
Jason looked up at Tess, who stood behind his distraught daughter.
“A kitten,” she answered his questioning look. “There was a stray kitten outside this morning and this ’possede’,” she said, borrowing her employer’s Cajun slang for “mischievous child”, “brought her in and tried to give her a bowl of milk. We’ve spent the whole day entertaining the little thing, but I made the mistake of stepping outside, and she shot out of here like a bat out of you-know-where.”
“Shhh,” Jason crooned, stroking his child’s tangled hair. “Don’t worry, Tess will find her.”
“I’ve looked everywhere,” the nanny responded, her shoulders slumped.
Dalia lifted her wet eyes to stare at her father. “You’ll bring her home, won’t you, Daddy?”
The complete and utter faith he saw there sent a jolt straight to his heart. He should be focusing on his daughter, not some blackmailing SOB or a crazy woman who made his blood run both hot and cold. Dalia wouldn’t always need him, he realized with a bittersweet pang. One day, she would be a beautiful, independent adult. He should cherish this time when he and Tess were her whole world, because it would be gone all too soon.
“Okay, Cher, why don’t you tell me about your kitty while we look for her?” Jason said as he took her hand and led her to the sunny kitchen.
The little girl described the small animal’s long black tail and little white feet, her grief forgotten in the excitement of talking about her new pet.
Jason opened a pinewood cabinet door and removed a can of tuna from the shelf, listening to her chatter. He opened it and dumped the fish on a paper plate. Sure enough, ten minutes after placing the smelly treat outside, a tiny black and white kitten slunk from beneath the shrubs and began licking the juice with tentative slurps that built to hungry gulps.
“Mouse!” Dalia shrieked, and snatched the animal up in her arms.
“Careful,” Jason warned as she tried to hang on to the flailing cat. He picked up the tuna in one hand and the cat in the other. As soon as they were inside, he dropped both and let the kitten return to her meal.
“Thank you, Daddy!” she exclaimed, showering his cheeks with kisses before turning her attention back to the hungry feline.
He watched as she ran her hand gently over its sleek fur. The case would be waiting for him tomorrow. Tonight, he had to figure out what, exactly, was involved in providing a home for a cat.
A few minutes later, his phone rang and his lofty plans for a peaceful evening at home came crashing down around him.
“Gee, Ms. Wells, this is becoming quite a habit, finding dead bodies.”
I jerked up from where I was sitting on the front step, head between my knees trying to will the nausea away. Shit, shit, double shit! I didn’t think this day could possibly get any worse, and then Jason Anders and his mini-me partner had to go and prove me wrong. I had been on autopilot when I called nine-one-one, and hadn’t thought about who would show up.
His presence jolted me out of the disconnect I had been feeling and the truth hit me – it was my fault that Cara had died. I needed to get out of here so I could process. Guilt was soon going to replace the exhaustion, and I didn’t want to be anywhere near Anders when it did.
“I really don’t feel up to a sparring match tonight, Detective,” I said. “Just ask your questions so we can all go home.”
“Wow, cooperation. That’s a first,” he said.
A part of me stung from the slap, but I was too tired and disheartened to fight back, so I just stared at him. He must have read something in my expression, because his demeanor became softer.
“Okay,” he said, “What were you doing at Ms. Montgomery’s house this evening?”
“Garden Club.” Apparently, I wasn’t as tired as I thought.
“And there it goes,” he said with an exaggerated sigh.
“We were having a girls’ night.”
I didn’t want to give him anything. If I was to have any hope of redeeming myself for what had happened to Cara, I had to be the one to end this thing.
“You can’t really expect me to believe that you and your father’s girlfriend were planning to cultivate roses or go bar hopping?”
“Why not?” I demanded, rising and climbing to the top step so I could look him in the eye. “We bonded.”
“Unless you want to revisit that jail cell you so recently vacated, you’d better start being straight with me,” he said, his face shifting back to hard. “I’m not in the mood for games, either. I’ve got two dead people shot with the same Ruger, and as far as I know, you’re the only link. So, you’re behind the murders or you’re next in line. Either way, you’d better start talking.”
“Threatening me isn’t going to change anything,” I said, impatience crawling up my spine. “Cara and I were friends, period. You can’t arrest me for that. If you want me to make something up, I will, but it’s not going to solve this case for you.”
I knew I was going to get caught in my lie sooner or later, but I was hoping it would be late enough that I would have figured things out.
“Fine,” Anders snapped. He turned his back to me and shouted, “Dillon!”
“What’s up?” Mini-me asked as he sauntered over.
“Take Ms. Wells and get her statement.”
He said my name in the tone I use when talking about gum disease or rat poison.
“You don’t want to talk to her yourself?” Dillon’s voice pitched upward with what sounded like incredulity.
“I’m finished with her,” Anders said, his disgust evident. “Get what you can out of her.”
Disappointment blew through me, feeling as if it were hollowing me out. I had expected Anders to argue, snipe, cajole. I hadn’t expected him to wash his hands of me. Even though I had been dreading his interrogation, it hurt to know I meant so little that he couldn’t be bothered to speak with me.
I smiled at Dillon. It wasn’t his fault that his partner was a callous, unfeeling SOB. I was going to be peachy-pie nice. I wasn’t going to tell him anything of real importance, but I was going to make sure he got more than Anders had been able to. Let Mr. High-and-Mighty stew on that!
“Hello, Dillon,” I said. “We have to stop running into each other like this.”
He seemed a little taken aback by my playful greeting.
“Uh, hi, Jessie,” he said, brows furrowed. “I don’t suppose you want to tell me what was going on this evening?”
“Actually,” I said, “I do. I want to be completely up front with you.” I hoped like hell my nose didn’t grow when I said this.
Dillon’s eyes widened. “You do?”
“Of course. I don’t have anything to hide. In fact, as your partner (it was my turn to pull out the nasty tone) pointed out, it’s in my best interest to tell you what I know.”
“Which is?” he prompted, studying me like an algebra equation.
“Cara told me the governor was being blackmailed.”
Now those gray eyes sharpened. “She did? Did she say who this blackmailer was?”
“She didn’t know.”
“When did she tell you this?” he asked.
“Just this evening,” I lied. “That’s why I was coming to see her.”
“What, exactly, did she say, word-for-word?” Dillon said.
“She said she had found proof that someone had recently contacted the governor and demanded money.”
“Did she know if it was a man or a woman?”
“She didn’t say,” I replied.
“What secret was he or she threatening to expose?”
“She didn’t tell me that, either, but she did say he was working on a book.”
His questions were coming like bullets, and I really wanted to end the conversation. I had given him what I had planned, so I was through.
“I really don’t know any more, and I’m exhausted and a bit shaky. Can I please go home now?”
He hesitated for a moment, looking through the open door to Anders, but turned back when he saw his partner was engaged in conversation with a uniformed officer.
“Yeah, go home and get some rest,” he said, closing the iPad he had been using to take notes. “We’ll be in touch if we need anything more.”
“I’m sure you will.”
He gave me an endearing little half-smile before adding, “Be careful, Jessie.”
“I will,” I promised.
I watched him walk inside, wondering if I had done the right thing in giving him even that much. Had I let my desire to embarrass Anders push me to overplay my hand? No, I decided. They would have learned about the blackmail eventually, and now they thought I had told them everything. I had bought myself some space by sharing what they believed was all I knew.
I gave myself a mental shake. I had to get it together. I was meeting Milston tomorrow. No tonight, I corrected after looking at my watch. I had to be ready.
“Let me guess,” Jason said over his shoulder as Dillon approached. “She was just here for tea and biscuits.”
“No,” Dillon answered, and Jason felt a small twinge of discomfort at the smug note in his partner’s voice. “She was surprisingly forthcoming.”
“What?” Jason whipped around to face his partner. “She talked to you?”
“She did,” he replied, smiling broadly. “Get this – the governor was being blackmailed. Again. He was writing a book.”
Jason dismissed the officer standing nearby before challenging his partner. “She told you this, that her father was being blackmailed?”
“Yeah. She said Cara called her, and that’s why she was here. Only Cara was killed before she could tell her what she knew.”
“And she told you all of this willingly?”
Jason didn’t buy it. There had to be something more to her motives than a sudden change of heart.
“What? Do you think I waterboarded her? Of course she gave it up willingly.”
“Hmm,” he murmured, staring into the distance.
Dillon narrowed his eyes. “What’s going on in there?” he said, tapping Jason’s forehead.
“Cut it out!” Jason said, swatting the hand away. “I’m trying to figure out why Jessie decided to share this bit of information with you.”
“Because she realized cooperating with us was in her best interest.”
Jason snorted. He may have only met Jessie a few days ago, but he knew her better than she gave him credit for. She wasn’t going to give away anything she didn’t have to.
“No chance. I don’t trust anything that comes out of that woman’s mouth. She’s playing us, Dillon.”
“I don’t think so,” Dillon countered. “Her story makes sense, especially given what we learned about Elroy today. I think she was telling the truth.”
“Of course you do,” Jason said, an unexpected flash of anger burning through him. “She smiled, maybe showed a little cleavage, and you were eating out of her hand.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Dillon said. “You’re the one who sent her to me. I can’t help it if she’s more comfortable with me.”
“She’s just good at sniffing out a mark.”
Dillon gave his friend a shove that sent him stumbling back a few steps.
“Screw you, Jason!”
He turned and stomped off in the direction of his car. “I’m going home,” he called over his shoulder. “Call me when you’ve pulled your head out of your ass, and we’ll figure out how we’re going to approach Elroy.”
Shit! Jason knew there was no excuse for the way he was venting his frustrations on his partner.
“Dillon, wait,” he shouted, hurrying across the lawn. His long strides quickly closed the distance between himself and the shorter man. He placed a hand on his friend’s shoulder to stop him. “I’m sorry. That was uncalled for.”
“Ya think?” he said, swinging around, eyes shooting gray sparks.
“Yeah. I was being coo-yon back there.”
The anger on Dillon’s face morphed into concern. “I have no idea what that means, but what’s going on with you? You never lose control like that.”
Jason could feel the flush of shame heating his face, no doubt turning him bright red from his neck to the tips of his ears. For the life of him, he couldn’t figure out why Jessie Wells tied him up in knots. She was a smart, good-looking woman, but he had kissed plenty of smart, good-looking women. What made her different from the others? What about her set both his body and mind churning? It was the eyes, he decided, those haunted, toffee-colored eyes. And the fact that she made his every nerve-ending buzz with desire. No matter the reason, ignoring the problem hadn’t helped. He was going to have to deal with it head on.
“You’re right,” he said. “I’m not behaving rationally, and it’s affecting my work on this case.”
“Really? I hadn’t noticed.”
Jason dropped to the curb and buried his face in his hands. “Jesus, Dillon. I can’t get a handle on this.”
He combed his fingers through his hair. He couldn’t see any good way to deal with whatever it was that was happening in his head. Or his body, for that matter. He couldn’t keep acting like this case was no different from any other; nothing about it was typical. He couldn’t keep insisting that Jessie meant nothing to him; clearly, she did. He couldn’t pretend everything was fine; it definitely was not. But how could he proceed without stomping all over everything he had worked so hard to build? Damn it, he always knew what to do, but now he was floundering. How was he going to keep each aspect of his life nice and neat in its own little box?
He looked up as his partner sank to the concrete beside him, placed a hand on his shoulder.
“I don’t know what’s bothering you,” Dillon said, “but I can see it’s bad. Why don’t you tell me about it? Maybe I can help.”
Jason huffed an amused breath. Perhaps he should confide in his partner. It certainly couldn’t make things any worse.
“That’s just it. I can’t tell you what’s going on, because I have no idea. This woman has gotten under my skin and I don’t know how to get her out.”
“Why do you want to?”
Why?” he asked, and cringed at the incredulous squeak that came from his mouth. He’d made a terrible mistake. He really didn’t want to talk about this, not with Dillon. He was a grown man, for God’s sake! This was humiliating.
“Talk to her,” Dillon said, cutting through his thoughts.
“Why would I do that?” Jason asked, horrified. “She’ll think I’m insane.”
“She already thinks you’re insane,” Dillon said. “What’ve you got to lose?”
“My dignity,” he countered, hating the idea.
“That’s long gone, my friend. And you’re not going to be able to get rid of this itch until you bang her.”
Jason smiled. “Your tact is one of your best qualities.”
“I pride myself on my sensitivity. Talk to her.”
“I’ll think about it.”
Having shared his quota of emotions for one day, it was time to change the subject.
“So now we have to figure out our next step in this shit-storm of an investigation.”
“My money’s on Elroy,” Dillon said. “We know he already tried to blackmail the governor once.”
“But why now?”
“If he found out the governor was working on a tell-all, he might have figured his campaign for public office was dead in the water.”
“But his first attempt failed, why would he risk so much knowing the governor wasn’t likely to give in to extortion?”
“Maybe he had more leverage this time.”
“Maybe,” Jason said with a sigh, “but I don’t think so. We have to consider that Jessie may have thrown us a red herring.”
He held up his hand to forestall Dillon’s protest. “It’s a possibility,” he insisted.
“But why?” Dillon said.
Jason slapped the palm of his hand against the pavement in frustration. “Because that damn woman has to get her story and screw us over in the process.”
“I don’t believe for an instant she’s that cold,” Dillon said.
“I honestly don’t know,” Jason said, feeling the weight of the day pressing heavily on him.
He wasn’t sure if he could trust the information Jessie had given Dillon, but the truth was he couldn’t overlook it. They were going to have another little chat with Bronson Elroy.
“Let’s go home and get some sleep,” he said, rising. “We have a busy day ahead of us.”