My first stop was the house neighboring that of the governor. Of course, “neighbor” might not have been the correct term, since there was a good mile between the Welling mansion and the smaller, but equally lavish, home to the east. I knew it was a long shot, but it was a rather out-of-the-way location without much traffic. The person who lived here may have noticed a car driving by early this morning. And there was the possibility that he or she had travelled in some of the same social circles as the governor. Being an ex-con had removed him from a few select groups, but he was far from a pariah. I found it rather odd that notoriety could make one popular among certain crowds. Just look at the Kardashians.
I drove up to the wrought-iron gates and pushed the call-box button.
“Who’s there?” a female voice boomed over the speaker.
“Jessie Wells,” I answered.
“What? I’m a little hard of hearing, dear. You’ll have to speak up.”
I leaned out the car window, nearly pressing my lips to the device, and shouted, “Jessie Wells, uh, Welling. From next door.” I hadn’t used that name in years, and really hated using it now, but she would be far more likely to recognize the governor’s name than my own.
The barrier parted, swinging in smoothly and allowing me to drive up to the elegant, eighteenth-century stone manor. I simply sat for a few moments, enchanted by the vision of sunlight shining on the rose-draped terrace surrounding the second floor. When I stepped out of my car, I felt the blooms invade all of my senses, dazzling my eyes, whispering in the breeze, filling my nose and tickling my skin as the rich scent wafted through the air. The scene was breathtaking. I felt beauty smooth out the rough edges of my nerves.
“What do you want?”
The spell was broken by the high-decibel shout resembling the one I had heard moments before through the speaker. I looked up to see a small elderly woman, as round as she was tall and encased in a red satin housedress, standing on the veranda. Her face, the color of rich milk chocolate, was criss-crossed with hundreds of lines and fissures, but her hazel eyes were sharp. For some reason, I felt like I recognized her, but I couldn’t imagine how that could be. You speak to a lot of people in my line of work, so I chalked it up to having come across someone she resembled.
“Mrs. Morgan?” I had searched out the name of the owner on my smartphone before I drove up.
“That’s me, but I ain’t buyin’ anything, so you can just turn right around and go back where you came from.”
Great! A crotchety, deaf, octogenarian. Lovely. But I had to find out if she knew anything, so I persevered.
“No, Mrs. Morgan. I’m Jessie. My father is Governor Welling, from next door,” I repeated. “I really need to speak with you.”
She snorted. “Next door, my brown butt. Well, come on in, then.” She turned and stomped inside, moving with surprising speed in her feathery scarlet mules.
Wow! Just like that, she was letting a complete stranger into her home. Not smart. “Don’t you want to see some ID or anything?” I asked as I followed her over the threshold.
“No need,” she roared, pointing to the winding staircase that graced the parlor. “I’ve got Fifi.”
I looked up to find myself staring straight into the icy blue eyes of the biggest St. Bernard I had ever seen.
“Eep!” I admit it, I squeaked. I couldn’t help myself. I hated dogs, really hated them; I’m not sure why. There’s just something about those saliva-dripping fangs and spine-chilling growls that get to me, even if they’re only in my imagination.
The old lady cackled at my reaction to her monster-pet. “Don’t worry, Fifi’s a pussycat as long as you don’t get her all riled up.” She gave the beast a sloppy kiss on the top of her massive head. “Aren’t you, sweetheart?”
“And what does it take to rile Fifi?” I was going to make damn sure I didn’t do anything to upset her.
“Well, she’s none too fond of loud voices, and she doesn’t much care for sudden moves. What really gets her worked up, though, is when she thinks someone’s harassing me. That really gets her goat.” She guffawed again as she sank into a plush purple armchair and I wondered what she considered “loud”.
I moved as slowly as I could, eyes glued to the animal, until I made it to the matching chair beside her, angled to promote cheerful fireside conversation. I knew that this broad was probably having great fun at my expense, but I wasn’t about to take any chances. I carefully took my notebook and pen out of my back pocket and prepared to take notes. I’m old school when it comes to interviewing. Recorders only tend to make people nervous.
“Ms. Morgan,” I began.
“Land sakes, child,” she interrupted, “call me Agnes.”
“Agnes,” I said, shooting a furtive glance over my shoulder to make sure Fifi didn’t’ take offense at my calling her owner by her first name, “thank you for taking the time to speak with me.”
“You’ve come about the murder, haven’t you?”
I felt my eyes widen. “How could you know about that?” I demanded.
She nodded her wiry, gray head in the direction of a bookcase pushed up against the far wall. It was crammed full of a mishmash of books. On one of the shelves, wedged between embossed leather-bound volumes and drug-store paperbacks, was a police scanner. Her eyes gleamed with unabashed interest, and something else I couldn’t define. “Who was it? Was it the governor?”
Now I knew why she had let me in so readily. For a moment, I had second thoughts about sharing anything with her, but it would be public knowledge soon enough.
“It was,” I admitted.
“Was he with his tart? Did she do it?”
I felt me antennae shoot up in the air like a cartoon alien. “His tart? The governor had a girlfriend?”
Agnes gave me the same look I reserved for idiots who asked if I wanted regular or decaf.
“Of course he did, child. He was a handsome man. And that wife of his, all gold and glittery . . .,” she tsked, shaking her head in disapproval, “she was a royal bitch. Can’t blame him for wanting somethin’ sweet after she passed.”
“Do you know who this woman is? Do you know her name?”
“Of course not. Do you think your old man called me up to share details?” She laughed again, and it reminded me of sandpaper rubbing against metal. “But I seen her drive by plenty of times in that shiny yellow Corvette convertible. Pretty gal, ’bout your age, but blond.”
“What makes you think she was his girlfriend?”
“I may be old, but I can still put two and two together and come up with S – E – X.”
“Did you happen to notice anything else about her?” My voice had begun to rise, but I remembered Fifi and quickly tamped down my excitement. “Anything at all might be useful.”
“Well, now, I did happen to take note of her license-plate number.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. “You what?” I cried - screw the dog.
“You never know when information like that’s gonna come in handy.” She looked at me shrewdly, and I began to wonder if Ms. Morgan had sources of income that went beyond bridge games and bingo.
“And just what do you want in exchange for that information?” I asked. I’d been down this road before and lifted a hip to reach into the back pocket of my jeans for my wallet.
“Oh, for Heaven’s sake!” she exclaimed when I opened it up to see how much cash I had with me. “I don’t want your money; I have plenty of my own!”
Thank God, because I only had a ten and the lotto ticket I purchased yesterday morning at the gas station.
“I want in on the action.”
“What?” This was not at all what I had expected.
“I want to know what’s going on. Your daddy didn’t always do the right thing, l admit, but he was always good to me. He called me every day to make sure I was alright.”
“He did?” I asked in surprise. This didn’t sound like the governor at all.
“He knew I lived alone and was afraid something would happen to me. It seems I was in his favorite movie.”
“Lightning in a Bottle!” I cried, finally remembering where I had seen her before. She was decades older, a bit heavier and more wrinkled, but she still looked like Rosy, the character she had played in the movie I had watched at least 50 times. “It’s my favorite movie, too.” I didn’t know the governor had even seen a movie, and I really couldn’t believe he and I shared the same taste in cinema.
“Your father wasn’t evil, Jessie,” she said, her voice surprisingly soft.
“No,” I agreed. “He was too superficial to be truly evil, or truly anything but selfish.”
“He loved you. He talked about you a lot.”
I felt my face grow hot. “He treated me as if I weren’t there most of the time.” But another memory was shimmering before my eyes; one I had locked up somewhere in the back of my brain. I saw my parents arguing while I hid behind the door of my pretty pink and white bedroom. They were fighting about me. Gloria was insisting that I should be sent to some fancy school in Washington, D.C., the governor was insisting that an eight-year-old had no business being separated from her parents. In the end, Gloria had won, as she always did. The governor came into my room and sat on the canopied princess bed where I had flung myself, sobbing. He scooped me up and held me close as I cried my eyes out.
I shook my head and the scene faded away. I reminded myself that if the governor had really cared about me, he wouldn’t have given in so easily to Gloria’s demands.
“I want justice for your daddy, Jessie. Do we have a deal?” she asked, bringing me fully back to the luxurious, cluttered sitting room.
I certainly wasn’t about to trust this old woman; she was obviously a terrible judge of character. But she was observant, and she was Rosy, for God’s sake! I didn’t have to trust her in order to give her a few tidbits now and then.
“It’s a deal,” I said and reached out to shake her gnarled hand.
“Shit!” I was back in the Taurus rapidly tapping the screen of my iPhone when a large, angry-sounding bumblebee flew in my window. I swiveled my head from side to side, trying to get a fix on where it had landed when Gail answered her phone.
“Hey, Jess. What’s up?”
“Hold on a minute,” I said as soon as I heard the unmistakable baby-doll voice. Gail would have made a great phone-sex operator. I had no doubt that men would imagine they were talking to Marilyn Monroe. She sort of looked like Marilyn, too, with a little Beyoncé thrown in, but Gail was no flirtatious coquette. She was a martial-arts expert who taught self-defense at the police academy. I often suspected that it was the soft voice and bombshell looks that inspired her to be a bad-ass.
I spotted the bee crawling along the dusty dashboard. I slowly removed my sneaker and slammed it down on the invader.
“Jess!” I heard Gail shouting, “Are you alright? What’s going on?”
“No worries,” I said, retying my laces. “Just dealing with an unwanted guest. I need you to run a plate for me.” In addition to having mad ninja skills, Gail was also a hacker. And combine that with her connection to the academy and she could find just about anything.
“Ooh,” she drawled, “have we got another hot one?”
“Maybe,” I said. “I’m going to text it to you. Call me back when you have the info.”
“Wait a minute, not so fast,” Gail said. “We haven’t discussed my fee.”
I heaved a sigh. “Isn’t the knowledge that you’re not only helping a friend, but also exposing dark criminal underbellies to the public payment enough?”
“Nuh-uh,” she said.
“Fine. How does a dozen lemon-cream cupcakes sound?”
“Pina colada frosting?”
“Okay,” she said, apparently appeased. “Let me at ’em.”
I had made the unfortunate mistake of letting Gail know that I sometimes bake while outlining stories in my head. Since then, I have been financing my intel with baked goods. And a woman like Gail can work up an appetite kicking butt all day.
I rolled down my windows and began fanning myself with the newspaper lying on the passenger seat. A trickle of sweat rolled down my neck and I pulled my now frizzy hair up and held it on top of my head. Fortunately, the phone rang less than five minutes later.
“Cara Montgomery. Age: Thirty-one. Height: Five foot nine. Weight: One hundred and thirty. Hair: blond. Eyes: blue. Address: 365 Mount Royal Road, Kingsdale, Virginia.”
I scribbled everything down on the back of my loser lotto ticket.
“Thanks. You’re the best.”
“You know it,” she replied. “Are you gonna to tell me what this is all about any time soon?”
“Don’t know,” I answered truthfully. “But you’ll be one of the first on my list.”
“Screw that! I’d better be the first on the list after risking my job and freedom for you.”
“C’mon, Gail,” I said with a smile. “We both know there’s no risk. You’re too good.”
“You got me there,” she said. “Okay. You take care of yourself; I’m looking forward to my cupcakes.”
“Always,” I answered before disconnecting. Kingsdale was about one hundred miles south. I turned the key in the ignition and put the car in gear. I couldn’t wait to see what the lovely Ms. Montgomery had to say for herself. And if she happened to be away from home, I’m sure she wouldn’t mind if I took a quick peek around. Especially since she wouldn’t know anything about it.