I stepped from the buzz of street noise into the throb of music and jangle of voices raised to be heard over the jukebox. A single muted television above the bar cast a blue glow that tinged a darkened corner a hazy gray. I could see a man sitting in the niche; the lone occupant of a table near the now defunct payphone. He was lanky with a long, patrician nose and receding hairline. He wore a well-cut suit and expensive loafers.
“Feeling a little melodramatic?” I asked as I slid onto the chair opposite him.
“Not in the slightest,” he answered, that mellifluous voice contrasting with the cacophony surrounding us. “I simply wanted our chat to take place on neutral ground, away from our respective comfort zones. I trust this isn’t a place you spend a great deal of time?”
“No,” I said. The bars I tended to frequent were even worse than this one, but he didn’t need to know that.
I signaled a waitress in torn jeans and a too-tight tee and she trotted over. I ordered a beer, Milston a scotch. We soon had our drinks and I took a long swallow before speaking.
“So, what’s the deal? Why are we here?”
“I told you. Your father was a dear friend and I want to do all I can to see his murderer brought to justice.”
“I don’t buy it,” I told him. “There’s more, and if you really do want to help, you’re going to have to give it up. All of it.”
He sat back in his chair, dropped the look of brotherly regard. “Fine. I had hoped to work up to this, but I can see you’re too straightforward for pleasantries.”
“Nothing about this has been pleasant,” I said. “What do you want from me?”
“It’s as I told you. I want justice, and I think I can help you get it.”
“How?” I demanded.
“I have reason to believe that Candace Pinkston is behind everything.”
“What?” This was the last thing I had expected Milston to reveal.
“She and I have kept in touch. I guess you might say we are friends.”
“But . . .” I prompted when he hesitated.
“But, she’s always hated your father for what he did, for ruining her life. Instead of dissipating with time, that hatred has festered.”
“She’s hardly alone,” I said. “A lot of people hated my father.”
“Yes, but how many of them contacted him last week.”
Excitement fizzed in my blood.
“You heard her?” I asked.
“I did,” he said. “I didn’t hear the beginning of the conversation, but her voice rose as she got angry. I heard her say, ‘You’re going to regret this, I promise you.’ Then she hung up. She’s always had a scary temper, so I snuck a peek at her phone when she was in the bathroom. It was your father she had called.”
Disbelief and confusion mixed with excitement – an overwhelming cocktail – and it took me a moment to catch my breath. Sex, money, power. Murder almost always involved one or more of these, and all three played into Milston’s scenario. It was quite possible that Candace, my father’s lover, had felt betrayed when he was arrested. She believed he had not only lied to her, but had stripped her of the future she had always dreamed of for herself. She managed to tamp down that anger well enough to function, but when she learned that the governor was set to make a mint publishing his memoirs, her fury had burst free. It made sense.
“Why are you willing to turn on your friend?” I asked. “And why come to me rather than go to the police?”
“It’s because she’s my friend that I came to you. I don’t want to involve the authorities until I know, without a doubt, she’s guilty.”
His words rang true and sincerity shone in his eyes, but I had seen men like him turn empathy on and off at will. Maybe he was telling the truth, and maybe he wasn’t. As with every other lead in this case, I needed more information.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll look into your theory. But I work alone. You will not insert yourself into my investigation.”
“I had no intention of doing so,” he said, placing his hand over mine and staring into my eyes, his own dewy with unshed tears. “Thank you.”
Uncomfortable, I pulled my hand away and stood. He did the same, throwing some bills on the table for our drinks.
“Let me walk you to the door.”
“And risk being seen with me?” I asked.
“I have no problem with being seen with you, especially around here,” he said, raking the room with a derisive glare before falling in step behind me.
“Then why the cloak and dagger bit?”
“I told you, neutrality and privacy were my goals, not secrecy.”
“Whatever,” I said, having no idea what to make of the man or his story.
I pushed open the glass door and stepped out into the cool night air. Stars were sprinkled like diamonds across the black velvet of the sky and a fresh breeze had risen, blowing away some of the oppressive heat of the day. I paused for a moment, enjoying the dazzle above. I had just filled my lungs with the cooler air when I felt hard punch to my shoulder.
“What the hell?” I cried as I looked down, expecting to see whatever had hit me lying on the ground. What I saw instead was a scarlet blossom blooming on my white T-shirt.
“Get down!” I heard Milston scream from far, far away.
What was happening? My mind was scrambling to make sense of things when I felt another punch, this one to my side. I instinctively put down my hand and it came away sticky with blood. My knees started to give way and I dropped to the ground in what seemed like slow motion. A heavy curtain was falling over my eyes and I began to shake. Reality slammed into me with the same force as the projectiles. I had been shot – twice!
Fear clawed at my chest and throat. I didn’t want to die. Not here, alone in the street. I wouldn’t die like this! I thought about my little girl and desperately wished I had had the chance to tell her the truth. I gritted my teeth and struggled to stay conscious, but the darkness in front of my eyes and in my head kept growing deeper.
“Not like this,” I whispered, not sure if it was aloud or in my head. It didn’t matter. The dark kept pressing in on me, heavier with each passing moment. And then everything went black.
Jason jerked upright, jarred from a restless sleep by the dissonant clash of heavy metal music. He struggled against the sheet wrapped around him like a straightjacket and fumbled to grab his cell from the nightstand before it woke Dalia and the rest of the state of Virginia.
“Dillon, what’s wrong?” he demanded, knowing no good news came from a call at three-thirty in the morning.
“It’s Jessie. Jason, she’s been shot.”
“What?” Icy dread swept through him. “How? Is she okay?”
“I don’t know,” Dillon answered, “but I don’t think it’s good. They took her into surgery ten minutes ago.”
“I’m on my way.”
Jason grabbed a black tee and the jeans from the day before. He shoved his feet into a pair of sneakers and was dialing Tess as he hit the door. Fifteen minutes later, he slammed the gear into “park” and turned off the siren he had used to make the trip in half the time it would have taken without it.
The fear twisting his insides was growing by the second. He shoved open the emergency-room door and stood helpless for a few precious moments as he tried to make sense of the frantic activity surrounding him. Doctors and nurses were rushing to a gurney surrounded by tubes, wires, and machines emitting beeps and blips. Needles were jabbed into a tiny arm extending from the green covering.
Jesus Christ! It was a child. A small curly head was nestled on the flat pillow, eyes closed. A trickle of blood had dried against the ashen skin of the boy’s forehead.
He imagined seeing Dalia like that, and his racing heart stopped cold for a beat before resuming its frenzied pace. His little girl was at home; sound asleep with Tess standing watch. She was safe, but Jessie was not.
God, why had he waited so long to talk to Jessie? If he had been honest with her – and himself – he might have been with her; she might have been safe at home, just like Dalia.
He ran to the nurse’s station in the center of the action.
“Jessica Wells,” he barked. “Where is she?”
Obviously used to dealing with emotional friends and family, the woman at the computer remained calm. She tapped a few keys and replied, “She’s in surgery. The waiting area is down this hall and to the left.” She pointed to a long corridor.
“Thanks.” He gave a curt nod and raced in the direction she indicated.
He was going to be there when Jessie came out, and when she did, they were going to talk about everything he had been afraid to face.
Time crawled. Jason stared at the screens hanging on the pale green wall opposite the sofa where he had been sitting, off and on, for the past three hours. The status of patient 00652 hadn’t changed since he arrived. Jessie was still in surgery. He rose and perused the magazines lining the rack against the wall, but neither Your Happy Pregnancy nor Living with Irritable Bowel Syndrome held any appeal. He moved on to the small percolator and poured what had to be his fifth cup of really bad coffee. The bitter liquid burned its way down his throat and set fire to his stomach.
A white-coated, middle-aged man wearing paper booties shuffled into the room and scanned the anxious faces turned up to him.
“Detective Anders?” he called.
“Here,” Jason answered, tossing a Styrofoam cup into the trash. “How’s Jessie?”
The doctor ushered him from the waiting area and into the empty hall. “We were able to remove both bullets. She’s going to be fine. There was no nerve damage, and the repairs to muscle and vessels were successful. She should make a complete recovery.”
“Thank God,” Jason sighed and fell back against the wall as relief washed through him. “Can I see her?”
“Not yet. She still hasn’t been wheeled into recovery and she won’t be ready for visitors for at least a couple of hours.” He placed a hand on Jason’s shoulder. “She’s going to be as good as new, but it’ll take time.”
Jessie was going to be okay. The reality of it was starting to sink in, and with it came the realization that he had no idea what to do next. He wanted, no, he needed to find out what had happened to her, and she couldn’t tell him.
Hot anger burned through the relief and confusion as he watched the doctor retreat down the hall; probably back to the room where Jessie was resting after having been sewn back together.
He pounded his fist against the wall. Elroy was responsible for this! He thought he could bribe, blackmail, and murder without consequence. This was a man who wanted to hold the second-most powerful office in the state of Virginia? Well, not when he was through with him. No, once he confessed – and he would, Jason would make sure of that – he would be spending his life behind bars, not some fancy mahogany desk.
Jason stormed down the corridor and shoved through the ER doors. Bronson Elroy was a dead man.
Once inside his vehicle, he flipped on the siren and screamed out of the hospital parking lot. The tiny whisper of reason warning him to cool down first was buried too deeply beneath the rage for him to hear it. Driving one handed, he jerked out his iPad and pulled up Elroy’s address, never bothering to slow the SUV.
Whizzing by vehicles that had pulled to the side of the road, he shot through a red light and jumped the curb in front of Elroy’s elegant Victorian home ten minutes later. He sprang from the seat and slammed the door so hard the entire frame shook. This bastard hurt Jessie, and Jason was going to beat a confession out of him. He strode up the walk, taking the three steps to the porch in one long-legged leap. Letting the momentum carry him, he kicked open the door with a powerful thrust.
“Bronson Elroy!” he roared into the darkened interior. “Get your lee-lahs out here!”
He marched through the house, flipping on light switches and checking rooms as he passed. Not finding the man in question, he moved his search to the second floor, taking the treads two at a time.
“Elroy!” he shouted.
This time he found the man huddled in a king-sized bed, attacking the buttons of his cell phone with quick jabs of his index finger. Jason was at his side in an instant and yanked him from beneath the covers. He fell to the floor in an undignified, blue-pajama-clad heap, phone skittering under the bed.
“Get up,” Jason commanded, grabbing the man’s collar and tugging him until he stood.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Elroy sputtered, struggling against Jason’s grip.
Jason twisted his fist in the silk fabric, tightening his hold on the man and pulling him to his feet.
“You son of a bitch!” A red haze blinded him to everything but the fury boiling in his blood. He channeled that rage into a shove that slammed Elroy against the wall. “You tried to kill her!”
“You’re a madman! Get out of my house!” Elroy screamed as he scrambled on his hands and knees toward the bed and the lost phone.
Jason reached out, pulled him back.
“Why’d you do it, Elroy? Was she getting too close to the truth?”
He gripped a handful of hair and jerked Elory’s head back so he could look into his eyes.
“Did you plan on killing all of them, or was Jessie an afterthought? Just tying up loose ends?”
“What are you talking about?” Elroy gasped, his breath coming in hard, fast pants. “What do you want from me?”
“I want you to tell me about blackmail and murder. I want to know exactly how you did it.”
“I told you about the blackmail,” he said in a reedy voice that sounded nothing like his usual rich baritone. “You can’t do anything about that now.”
“I want to hear about what you did last night, feet pu tan,” Jason demanded, pulling tighter.
’I didn’t do anything last night,” Elroy wheezed. “You’re insane!”
Dillon barged into the bedroom where his partner had just pulled back his arm in preparation to break Elroy’s fine Roman nose.
“What the hell are you doing?” he said as he caught Jason’s arm and wrenched him away from the prostrate figure.
“I’m going to get this lying sack of shit to tell me everything,” he answered, breathing hard as he pulled free and turned back to Elroy.
“No, you’re not,” Dillon said, stepping between the two men. “Not like this.”
“Move.” Jason spat out the word with the force of a nail gun.
“No.” The smaller man stood his ground. “You’re done here.”
“Not even close.”
“Think, man!” Dillon implored. “The only thing you’re going to accomplish is to get your ass thrown in jail while Elroy laughs his off.”
“Oh, you’re going to jail,” Elroy said, climbing to his feet. “They’re going to throw away the key.”
“Shut up,” Dillon said, “or I’m walking out of here and leaving you alone with him.”
Elroy shut his mouth.
Jason felt the white-hot rage gradually recede, replaced by a simmering frustration. He wanted to pound on something, and Elroy was the perfect target. The smug bastard was the picture of bristling outrage as he stood there in his fancy PJs pretending like he was the victim. It made Jason’s stomach turn, but he dropped his stance and backed up a few steps. Dillon was right – if he continued down this path, he would be the one paying for this son-of-a-bitch’s crimes.
“Okay,” he said, holding up both hands in a gesture of surrender. “I’m done.”
“You certainly are,” Elroy said, having retrieved his cell during the confrontation between the partners. “I’m calling nine-one-one.”
“No, you’re not,” Dillon said.
“The hell I’m not!”
“If you do that,” he said in a reasonable tone of voice, as if explaining something to a small child, “I’ll make sure they investigate that tidy little pile of pills you have lying on your bedside table. I’m willing to bet you didn’t get all of those from your family doctor. In fact, I’m wondering if that little orange one came from a doctor at all.”
“You’re not going to get away with this,” he hissed, but put down the phone and raked the tablets and capsules into a drawer. “Get out!”
“C’mon,” Dillon said, “let’s go check on Jessie.”
Jason followed, his thoughts cringing away from the number of laws that had been broken in his pursuit of vigilante justice.