Jason stopped in front of the glass door proclaiming the building to be the “Office of the Chief Medical Examiner”. He always needed a moment to prepare before entering this house of the dead. He thought about Jessie and how she had hesitated just a moment before walking past the parlor where her murdered father lay. Had she needed to prepare herself to face death in general, just as he did now, or had it been something more? Had she been preparing herself to face the lifeless shell of the man who had given her life?
Dillon reached around him and pushed open the door, apparently not as affected by what went on behind it. Grimacing, Jason stepped inside. The smells hit him immediately – formalin, bleach, antiseptic – smells he associated with death.
“You coming?” Dillon called over his shoulder.
“Yeah, I’m coming,” he said, following his partner down the long empty hallway. Thankfully, they weren’t headed to the autopsy suite. He had never understood why some cops felt the need to watch the ME at work. Lottie didn’t miss a thing.
And there she was, standing in the doorway to her office. Dr. Charlotte Rossi, Chief Medical Examiner of Tilson, Virginia. Barely five-feet tall and slim, she looked like someone’s kid sister with freckles sprinkled across her youthful face and the sides of her long, dark hair pulled back from her ears. Only the long white lab coat gave any hint of her true identity. She had been a top-notch chief since her predecessor Dr. Voorhees had shot himself six years ago. He had always seemed easy-going, but decades spent in this line of work had taken its toll. Jason hated to think of wholesome girl-next-door Lottie going down that same road.
She pushed at a pair of trendy black-rimmed glasses; a mindless gesture he knew meant she didn’t have anything of importance to share. Jessie chewed her nails when she was nervous or stalling for time, he had noticed. And dammit, where had that come from? For God’s sake, couldn’t he even visit the ME without her forcing her way into his brain?
“Jason. Dillon.” Lottie greeted, ushering them inside. “I was expecting you. Please come in.”
The two men entered the small, plain office. It held a simple wooden desk, much like the one Jason’s teachers had always used when he was back at Holy Cross. On top rested her computer and a stack of folders. A gray filing cabinet and two straight-backed chairs were the only other visible furniture in the room. Each man took a chair and Lottie sat on what looked like a giant beach ball she pulled out from under the desk.
“You’re here about the governor, of course,” she said, wobbling slightly on her perch.
“We are,” Jason confirmed. “What can you tell us?”
“Not much, I’m afraid. He was a healthy male adult killed sometime between o-six hundred and o-seven-thirty yesterday morning. He was shot with a Ruger LC9.”
“Popular weapon,” Dillon sighed. “That doesn’t tell us much.”
“No,” she agreed. “It doesn’t. I can tell you that this wasn’t a suicide, and that the body hadn’t been moved. There were no defensive wounds. Tox screens show he had a significant amount of alcohol in his system, but no other drugs. There were a few yellow fibers collected from the victim’s hand.”
“Fibers?” Jason asked.
“Yes. My guess is that he pitched forward after being shot, grasping the perpetrator. Some fibers from the clothing were transferred to the victim. They were cheap, common polyester.
“That’s about it, I’m afraid. Do you have any specific questions I might be able to answer?”
“Yeah,” Dillon said, watching her bob and weave like a Weeble Wobble. “What the hell are you doing? You’re gonna fall on your ass.”
“Working my abs,” she answered in her reliable, matter-of-fact manner. “Anything else?”
“Of course you are,” he muttered before looking to Jason, but his partner was silent, gazing beyond Lottie’s shoulder in the direction of the jail.
“Earth to Jason,” he said waving a hand in front of his friend’s face.
“What?” he said, blinking the office into focus.
“Do you have any questions?” the doctor repeated.
“No. Thanks, Lottie.” Jason stood. “Let me know if anything else comes to light.”
“Of course. And you’ll want a copy of my report for your records,” she said, handing him the top file from the pile.
“Right,” Jason answered, taking it as his partner snickered at the rookie oversight. “Thanks, again.”
“I’ll send you an electronic copy after I finish up for the day.”
Guilt ate at Jason as he and Dillon left Lottie’s office and stepped out into air that smelled of exhaust fumes and food trucks, not death. What if his partner was right about his decision to arrest Jessie? Did she really belong in jail? She had just discovered her father’s body yesterday, and he had gone and tossed her in jail for trying to find out why. Wouldn’t he have done the same thing in her place? Was he letting his jumbled emotions affect his judgment?
“What now?” Dillon asked, as they began walking in the direction of police headquarters.
“We’re going to jail,” he answered. “I need to check on Jessie.”
“Really?” Dillon smirked. “I thought you had washed your hands of her.”
“Yeah, well, I just want to make sure she hasn’t started writing an expose on the evils of the Morgan County Jail.”
“Shut up.” Jason growled.
The two men walked past HQ and over one more block to a long, flat building built of industrial-looking cement bricks. While its exterior was much uglier than the Office of the Medical Examiner, Jason felt no discomfort on entering. In fact, he couldn’t shoulder through the door fast enough. He approached the front desk and flipped open his badge, shoving it under the nose of the officious-looking clerk working the computer.
“I’m here to see Jessica Wells.”
“What do you mean she’s gone?” Jason demanded.
The woman, eyes glued to her computer screen, replied, “She posted bail.”
“When? Where did she go?”
She finally looked up into Jason’s furious green eyes. “I’m not her parole officer,” she said, ignoring his tight voice and clenched fists. “She paid, she left. You’re the detective. If you want to find her, detect.” She went back to her typing.
“Sonofabitch!” he roared, pounding the desk with his fist before turning his back to the officer, who hadn’t so much as batted an eye at his outburst.
“Calm down,” Dillon said, stepping in front of his partner. “You need to bring it down a notch . . . or ten.”
Jason ran his hand over his hair, pulling strands down over his forehead. He brushed it back in annoyance. “I was worried about her,” he said. “I was imagining her sitting there in that cell, where I put her, miserable and alone, and she was out painting the town the whole time!”
“So, I guess we’re going after her, again,” Dillon stated.
“No. I’ve spent enough time chasing after that Couillon. We have more important things to do right now, like solving a murder.”
“Thank God,” Dillon replied. What’s our next step?”
“We’re going to take a good hard look at Bronson Elroy. Something got him hot and bothered. It’ll be real interesting to find out what.”
I kept my eyes on the road as I drove Agnes back to her home. The going was relatively easy in this direction – I didn’t have to worry about sailing over a cliff. Whom should I contact about leveling a mountain as a safety precaution? Not the time or place, I warned myself, and refocused my thoughts on the woman sitting beside me.
“What else have you heard on that scanner of yours, Agnes?” Might as well get right to the point. I really didn’t have the patience for playing games at the moment, and I was far more comfortable with the direct approach, anyway.
“I hear all sorts of things,” she said.
Even though I was watching the road, I could tell there was a wicked gleam in her eyes from the tone of her voice.
“What else have you heard about the murder?” I pressed.
“Oh, this and that.”
“Care to elaborate?”
“Care to tell me what’s going on with your investigation?” she countered.
“Forget it, Agnes.” I was finished handing out information like Kit-kat bars on Halloween.
“You and me had a deal.”
I looked over and noticed the gleam in the old lady’s eyes had hardened into anger.
“Hey, watch the road,” she said.
“Sorry,” I grumbled and corrected so that we were, once again, in the right lane.
“You and me had a deal,” she repeated. “We’re supposed to be partners.”
“No, we’re not!”
Partners? I had agreed to no such thing. Okay, I had promised to let her in on the action, but I had never agreed to working with a partner!
“We are,” she insisted. “I want to know what you’ve learned. Why were you visiting Elroy?”
“Come on, Agnes. You don’t need me to answer that.” If she hadn’t followed the governor’s corruption trial while it was happening, she had certainly studied up on it in the intervening years.
“Actually, I do,” she answered. “Oh, I know all about his connection to your daddy,” she said at my derisive snort, “but I don’t know why you spoke with him if you’re so convinced you have all the answers about your father’s past.”
“Just covering all the bases.”
“Nuh-uh.” I could feel her shaking her head vigorously. “You’ve found something that changed your mind, haven’t you?”
The gleam was back. The infuriating woman was like her stupid dog with a bone.
“Look, I’ll tell you what I can when I can,” I lied, “but right now I don’t have anything more than ideas.”
I didn’t particularly enjoy misleading her, and I suspected that she wouldn’t be fooled, anyway, but I couldn’t risk sharing. I needed to do this, and I needed to do it without being held back by hangers-on, no matter how well-meaning.
She stared at me for a long time, long enough to make me risk another look in her direction. I wasn’t able to read her expression, but I had been right in thinking she was no fool.
“Okay,” she said, letting me off the hook, much to my surprise. “I trust you have your reasons for keeping your cards close to the vest.”
“I do,” I answered, telling the first truth of our entire conversation. “Did the governor ever mention anything to you about writing his memoirs?”
“No. Was he?” she said eagerly.
Shit. “I don’t know, maybe.”
“Well, then. I’d say you need to find out who he was talking to. They probably have a lot of interesting ideas they can share.”
Damn if she wasn’t right! Why hadn’t I thought about Estes as soon as I learned of the book deal? What was wrong with me? Apparently, I couldn’t keep emotion from clouding my brain. I had to watch myself if I wanted to find answers; I couldn’t afford to let any emotional entanglements distract me.
I pulled up to the gate and watched as Agnes worked the control panel with her gnarled fingers. It swung open, and a few seconds later, I was dropping her off at her impressive front door.
“Come on in, sweetie. We’ll have some Irish coffee and talk things over.”
“Sorry, Agnes,” I said as I put the car in gear. “I have to go.”
I peeled out, not even looking back to make sure she made it inside. My brain cells were firing away, trying to unearth what they had stored on Grant Estes. They immediately came up with Bowler & Brothers, the name of the publisher he worked for. I pulled to the shoulder of the road and used my smartphone to look it up. The company’s website didn’t have a phone number or employee directory, but it did provide both mailing and e-mail addresses. The main office was located in Norfolk, which would mean six hours there and another six back again.
I steered back onto the road, deciding I was going to have to do some serious research. I might have driven just a wee bit fast on the way home, but, hey, it was literally a matter of life and death.