I really did have research to do. In examining the governor’s history, I realized he would have gotten away with his crimes if it hadn’t been for a man named Bronson Elroy. Elroy, strangely enough, was the current favorite in the upcoming election for lieutenant governor. Fourteen years ago, he had been working for Virginia Aeronautics, one of the companies with whom the governor had been making illegal deals. He had discovered the corruption and gone to the authorities. Thus, the whole web of lies was swept out from the corners and into the light. He was hailed as a hero and had parlayed his brief time in the spotlight into a political career of his own.
I wanted to spend some time studying both the company and Elroy’s life in the years immediately following his departure before I paid him a visit. Sick of staring at my own four walls, I decided to spend some time at the park, where I was always able to “borrow” someone’s Wi-Fi signal. I loved sitting on a park bench under the elms by a small, tranquil pond. It was the perfect way to enjoy the great outdoors – landscaping, internet access, and the only wild animals one had to worry about were squirrels and an occasional irate goose.
After a few hours, I had dug out all I was going to able to unearth and set out for the campaign offices of Mr. Bronson Elroy. He was based in a small, historical section of the downtown area, surrounding himself with trendy coffee houses, fancy antique shops, and quirky bookstores. I had never spent a great deal of time there; I prefer the cheap, impersonal stores and restaurants near my apartment. I parked along the street in front of the building bearing his shingle and considered ignoring the parking meter sprouting out of the sidewalk like an ugly steampunk weed. I looked up and down the street and, seeing no one on patrol, decided to risk it.
The white clapboard structure was trying very hard to look like its neighbors, but was obviously new. The faint smells of raw wood and paint were still lingering in the air and the shiny vinyl siding made its weathered companions look shabby in comparison.
I climbed the wooden, Air-Force blue steps and knocked once before opening a door of the same patriotic hue. A woman sitting behind a bronze and glass desk looked up as I entered. She was probably in her twenties, but looked younger, even though she wore a sophisticated plum-colored suit and had done up her raven hair in a mature twist. The heavy make-up she wore made her look like she had been playing in her mother’s cosmetics bag.
“Can I help you?” she asked, her timid voice giving away her inexperience.
I could definitely work with this.
“I need to see Mr. Elroy,” I said.
“Um, do you have an appointment?”
She began rapidly typing on her keyboard, undoubtedly looking up her employer’s schedule.
“No, but I think he’ll want to see me.” I handed her my credentials. “I’m a reporter and I’d like to speak with him about his bid for lieutenant-governor.”
“I don’t know. . .”
“Trust me.” I gave her what I hoped was a conspiratorial smile. “Mr. Elroy will want all the publicity he can get. It’s all part of the game.”
“Okay,” she conceded, reaching for the phone at her elbow. “I’ll let him know you’re here.”
Five minutes later, a short, stocky man in a charcoal suit tailored to make the most of his physique, opened a door to the left of the lobby. He ushered me in with a broad smile. Some would consider him attractive with his hay-colored hair and gunmetal eyes, but his heavy brow and slight jowls made me think of movie villains.
“Ms. Wells,” he said pumping my hand, “how nice of you to drop by. I’m a fan of your work.”
He had no idea who I was, of course.
“Really?” I asked, unable to resist poking at him. “Which article was your favorite?”
“There’s no way to pick just one,” he said, “but I prefer the political pieces, naturally.”
“I have a lot of questions that I’m sure my readers would love to have answered,” I said.
“Well, I wouldn’t want to disappoint them,” he replied, returning to his place behind the huge mahogany desk. “Please sit.”
I took the chair positioned across from him, which squeaked as my legs rubbed against the wine-colored vinyl.
“So, Mr. Elroy, tell me a little about yourself. What made you decide to enter politics?”
“I’m sure you’ve heard about how I brought down Governor Welling and his crooked administration?”
“That blatant breach of the public’s trust made me realize we have a real shortage of honest men in office. I decided to do what I could to remedy that.”
“And how did you discover that corruption?”
“I happened to find some documents caught in the shredder,” he answered after a brief hesitation.
“It must have been a difficult decision, knowing that if you went public you’d likely lose a very good job. What made you do it?”
He said nothing, but gave me a narrow-eyed gaze.
“Why would you ask that?” he finally demanded. “This is about the murder, isn’t it?”
Apparently, Elroy was no dummy. It was time to go in for the kill.
“Are you aware, Mr. Elroy, that Governor Welling was working to prove his innocence? That there is speculation that his death was a direct result of that effort?”
He rose to his feet.
“I think I’d like for you to leave now, Ms. Wells. I have an appointment in a few minutes and I need to prepare.”
I remained in my seat. “Mr. Elroy, as a beacon of light, surely you want readers to know you’re doing all you can to find the truth and see justice done?”
His face darkened, and I could tell it was taking considerable effort for him to hold on to his composure. He stepped around the desk and loomed over me. I knew he was on the verge of pulling me up from the chair and bodily removing me from his office. I stared back at him. If he wanted me gone, he was going to have to throw me out, and I was pretty sure that kind of press wasn’t what he was looking for.
“You’re trespassing,” he said instead. “I’ll ask you once again to leave. If you refuse, I will call the police.”
“Do you have something to hide? Is that why you don’t want to talk about Governor Welling? Did you plant the evidence and then report it for the attention?”
I had no basis for this accusation, and I knew he wasn’t going to answer my questions. I just wanted to see how he would react; that can be more telling than anything a person says. He gave away nothing, however, making his face go as blank and unreadable as a mask. This man definitely had what it took to be a successful politician.
“We’re done here,” he said returning to his chair and picking up the phone.
The game was over, and I knew it. I stood, but was unwilling to let him have the last word. “It’s going to come out,” I said. “The secret you’re protecting? It’s not going to stay hidden. That I promise you.”
With that, I turned and left.
“God dammit all to hell!” Jason shouted slinging his phone onto the dashboard hard enough to knock the battery loose and send it skittering. “Merde!” He leaned down to scrabble for the errant pieces on the floorboard of his police-issue Ford Explorer.
“Good to see your mood has improved,” Dillon said, one blond brow arched over the top of his aviators. “Are you gonna tell me what that phone call was about, or is that something else you’re going to sit and stew over?”
“That was Sarge,” he snarled, too angry to hear his partner’s comment or pick up on the unspoken accusation. He straightened and snapped the back of his cell in place. “One Bronson Elroy, former whistle-blower and current candidate for lieutenant governor, called to file a complaint against one Jessica Wells, who paid him a visit this morning. Apparently, he considers her behavior abusive and threatening.”
Dillon grinned. “She is ballsy. I would have loved to have seen that interview.”
“Yeah, well, you’re going to be up close and personal for the next one.”
He jammed his own sunglasses on his nose and slammed the vehicle into reverse. He backed out of the station’s small parking lot, sending gravel spewing.
Why couldn’t the damn woman just do as he’d asked? Didn’t she know she was screwing up everything, including him?
“Where are we going?” Dillon asked as Jason roared onto the highway.
“We’re going to arrest Jessie Wells for obstruction of justice.”
“Are you serious? Isn’t that a bit harsh?”
Jason’s jaw hardened. “What’s harsh is potentially letting a murderer go free because you want a headline. I’m not going to let that Couillon go on screwing around in our case. We’re going to teach her a lesson that’s long overdue.”
“What now?” I muttered as Etta’s husky voice filled my car with Stormy Weather. Don’t get me wrong, I love Etta, but this meant someone was calling and I really didn’t want to talk right now. I was still going over my visit with Elroy, turning both his words and behavior over and over in my mind as I drove toward home. Steering one-handed, I felt around the passenger seat until my fingers closed over my phone. I glanced quickly at the screen, nearly clipping a shiny, ruby-red mailbox when I took my eyes off the road. I didn’t recognize the number, but I’m simply not capable of letting a phone go unanswered, so I pressed it to my ear.
“Jessie? It’s Cara.”
I struggled for a moment before I realized I was speaking with the governor’s girlfriend.
“Did you remember something?” I asked, feeling an adrenaline spike. Maybe my visit had jolted something loose.
“Better, I found something. You need to come over right away!”
The excitement in her voice was infectious and I could feel my heart start pumping. I made a sharp U-turn and, ignoring the honk of a tiny blue mini-cooper behind me, headed toward Kingsdale.
“I’m on my way.”
“What’s going on?” I demanded as soon as Cara opened the door. “What did you find?” I badly wanted her to tell me something that would confirm the governor’s guilt once and for all, but I doubted she would let anyone know he passed gas, let alone anything incriminating.
“Hello to you, too,” she said as she stepped aside and made a sweeping gesture that I took as an invitation to enter.
“Thirty minutes ago, you couldn’t wait to tell me something, and I nearly wrecked my car racing over here. Now you want to chit-chat?”
“Okay,” she agreed. “You have me there.” She smiled, eyes sparkling, and bobbed up and down on her sneakered toes. I noticed she had a piece of paper clutched in her hand. “Look at this!” She shoved the sheet at me as I slid past her and into the living room.
“What is this?” I asked.
“Just read it.”
I looked down and saw that I was holding the hard copy of an e-mail sent from Governor Welling to a Grant Estes of Bowler & Brothers Publishing. If I was understanding what I was reading, the governor had written his memoirs and was working with Estes to get them published.
“Did you know about this?” I asked. “About the book?”
“Of course,” she answered. “He’s been talking about it forever.”
“I don’t get it,” I was still confused. “Why did you call me in such fit of hysteria about a book deal that you’ve known about forever?”
“Keep reading,” she ordered.
I returned to the page.
Mr. Estes, I understand your concerns, but I am sure you can appreciate the reasons why I’m protective of my privacy. However, let me assure you that what I have is irrefutable proof of my innocence. I will happily share it with you, and the whole world, when I’m sure it’s safe.
I looked up sharply. “What proof?” I demanded. “What did the governor have? I need to see it right now!”
Even I could tell that my voice was shrill and my words coming too fast as icy panic poured through me.
“I don’t know,” she said. “But we can find it. We can show everyone he didn’t do all those things he was accused of.”
She was as wound up as I was, but for a very different reason. She was frantic to prove that the governor was, deep down, a good man. I wanted – needed – to know that he was guilty as sin.
I closed my eyes and sank onto the rose-colored sofa. The e-mail meant nothing, I told myself. Of course the governor was holding out a carrot to his publisher. What better way to sell a book than to dangle a massive cover-up?
“Cara,” I said, sanity having reasserted itself, “this doesn’t mean anything. There is no hidden proof.”
“Of course, there is,” she insisted as she sank down next to me. “And I know where it is.” She held up a small fire safe with both hands.
“What? Where did you get that, and what makes you think anything’s in there?”
“I got it from my bedroom,” Cara answered. “And I know the proof is in there because Adam told me.”
“He told you?” My head was spinning. Nothing about this was making sense.
“Yes, he told me,” she repeated. “One night, about a year ago, Adam and I were. . .” she paused, a blush staining her smooth olive cheeks. “ We were spending the evening together, and he told me about his plans. He was all excited.” She stopped again, this time tears shimmered in her eyes and I looked away, reminded that this woman had just lost a man she may have loved. “He told me that he was giving me something that would keep me safe. I just assumed he was talking about the paperwork for the insurance policy. I had tried to talk him out of it, you know, the extra life insurance. He was going to live forever.” She choked on a sob and her hands began to shake, but she didn’t stop. “I didn’t need anything from him, but he did it anyway. That’s what I thought was in the box. Now I think he was talking about his proof.”
She took a small golden key out of her pocket. “Let’s open it up.” She fit it into the lock and turned. I sat, eyes riveted as I heard a snick and then a creak as she lifted the lid. Only one item was inside – a flash drive.
“Where’s your computer?” I asked, even though I wanted to slam the safe shut and pretend I had never seen it, never answered her stupid call. I couldn’t imagine what was on the drive, knew it couldn’t be anything important, but I had a really bad feeling in the pit of my stomach.
“It’s right here,” she crowed, plucking up a silver laptop from the coffee table.
I found myself gnawing on my nails and pulled my hand from my mouth.
“Well, then, plug it in and let’s see what we have.”
Cara stared at me, the excitement in her eyes giving way to fear. “I can’t,” she whispered, holding the computer out to me. “You do it.”
“Fine.” I snatched the drive from its resting place and jammed it into the port. I didn’t want to know, and yet I couldn’t get into it fast enough. I tapped my fingers lightly against the keypad while I waited the eternity it seemed to take for the single file to appear onscreen. An audio popped up, saved fifteen months ago. I clicked the icon, toggled up the volume, and waited, hot pin-pricks dancing across my skin.
“No, I don’t understand.”
I shivered as I recognized the voice as the governor’s.
“What is it you’re asking me to do?”
“It’s simple.” The answering voice was odd – synthesized so that it sounded flat and robotic. I couldn’t even tell if it belonged to a man or a woman. “You need to forget all about the past.”
“Did you really think this cloak and dagger garbage would fool me? I know exactly who you are and what you did to me.”
“Then you know why you have to stop. I ruined your life once, Governor, I can, and will, do it again.”
There was a click, then nothing.
“Oh my God,” Cara whispered beside me. “Oh my God!”
I turned to her, my brain scrambling to make sense of what I had just heard.
“This. . . This doesn’t mean anything,” I told her.
“Of course it does,” she said, her eyes burning like gas flame. “It proves he was set up by that . . . that . . . android!”
“No, it doesn’t,” I argued. “They could be talking about anything.”
“But they’re not, and you know it, Jessie.”
Did I know it? Could it possibly be true? Did I believe that this brief and very vague snippet proved that everything I had believed my entire adult life had been a lie? I began to shake all over and was glad I was sitting down. The truth was, I did believe it. Or at least I believed there was more to the story than I had thought for so very long. Then the anger hit – hard, sharp, hot. I felt it pound into me like a sledgehammer. How could he? How could he still manage to mess up my life from beyond the grave? And how could I trust anything ever again?
“Jessie?” Cara’s voice was sharp with concern.
I couldn’t catch my breath. My ears were ringing and I felt like the room was tilting. I was going to slide right off into some great unknown.
“I have to go.” I managed to stand.
“Jessie, wait,” Cara called after me as I slammed out the door and into my car. My hands were trembling so much that it took me three tries to get the key in the ignition. I saw Cara staring at me through the window, saw her vanish only to reappear on the front porch. I absolutely could not talk to her, or anyone, so I threw the car into gear and squealed away from the curb, narrowly missing an SUV attempting to get past me. I had no idea where I was going, but one thing I did know was that I was going to find out who was on the other end of that conversation with the governor. And when I did, I was going to make sure that he answered every single question I had. Then I was going to fry his ass!
The longer I drove, the more distance I put between myself and those voices, the calmer I became and the more I began to realize that I couldn’t do this alone. I had a lot going for me, sure, but without help, it would take me far too long to get the answers I needed. But who the hell could I trust now? For some inexplicable reason, only one face came to mind – one with a disdainful scowl and deep green eyes.