“What now?” a churlish voice snapped in my ear, which was pressed against my cellphone.
“Geez, Gail. What bug flew up your ass?”
“I was right in the middle of flinging a hibiscus at a werewolf.”
“You were what?” I couldn’t imagine anyone getting the drop on Gail, but someone must’ve kicked hard enough to damage that stone head of hers.
“Flowers and Monsters,” she said, as if that would explain everything.
“Why don’t you go lie down for a little bit,” I suggested, now truly concerned. “I’ll call again when you’re feeling better.”
“It’s a video game, stupid,” she said, “and I was going in for the kill.”
“Werewolves hate hibiscus.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” I said. “Now, since your game has already been ruined, can you get a number for me?” I had a feeling the thwarted floral homicide was going to cost me big time.
“What kind of number?” she asked. I could hear the edge of anger disappearing as her interest built. “Does it have anything to do with our case?”
“Our case?” I asked. Why did everyone feel like they could jump right on in like it was the public pool? “There isn’t a case and there isn’t an ‘our’. There’s a story, and it’s mine.”
“Whatever,” she sniffed. “Does it or not?”
“Yes,” I said with a sigh. “It relates to my story.”
“Well, alright, then. Hit me.”
I gave her a brief rundown, keeping silent about the audio file. She didn’t need to know any more than necessary.
“So, your father was writing his memoirs?” She sounded as excited as Agnes had. “Wow, bet he could’ve dropped some bombshells. Do you think that’s what got him killed?”
“I don’t know what got him killed, but I really want to know what he told Estes.”
“Do you think he killed your father?”
“Wait a minute,” she said. “We haven’t talked payment.”
“Triple-chocolate, peanut butter, pecan brownies?”
“What? You can actually do that?”
Her voice sounded breathless.
“A baker’s dozen?” I asked.
“As much as it pains me to say this, no. I want something else this time.”
My payback alarm blared like an air-horn inside my head. “Brownies and black forest cake with mocha-caramel drizzle?”
“Damn, girl! You’re making this hard, but no. I want to know about you and Detective Hot Stuff.”
“No!” My answer was quick and sharp. I punched the “end” button hard enough to break my already ragged nail. My reaction may have been a bit extreme, but I wasn’t going to talk about whatever was going on between Anders and me. I didn’t even want to think about it, at least not until I had my head on straight. If that were the price for Gail’s help, I’d find another way. I could send an e-mail right now and then head for Norfolk in the morning. It would be a hell of a drive there and back, and there was no guarantee Estes would be there. I could make it work, though. Someone would know where I could find him, and I could be very persuasive. I didn’t have to give in to Gail’s blackmail.
Etta burst out in song less than a minute later, but I ignored it. Another minute and she did it again, and, again, I let it go. When Stormy Weather rang out a third time, I jerked the phone to my ear.
“Give it a rest, Gail.” I barked.
“Now who’s got a bee up her ass?”
“I don’t want to talk to you,” I said, but the fact that I didn’t hang up kind of took the sting out of my assertion.
“God, Jess, I didn’t know Jason Anders was such a sore spot. I’m sorry I brought it up.”
“Apology accepted. Now go away.” I didn’t feel like holding a grudge, but I didn’t feel like bargaining either. I just wanted to get to work.
Her voice stopped me as I started to pull the phone from my ear. “Wait a minute! I have the phone number you wanted.”
“I don’t need it anymore,” I lied. “I’ll find another way.”
“Now you’re just being childish,” she said. That was the second time this week someone had accused me of behaving like a child, and it was beginning to hurt my feelings.
“I shouldn’t have pushed you on Anders,” she continued, “but it’s silly to punish me by refusing what I have.”
She was right. I was acting like a spoiled brat.
“Fine,” I said. “What is it?”
“Since you asked so nicely. . .”
I jotted down on the back of my hand the numbers she rattled off.
“You’re welcome. Oh, and Jess?”
“Yes?” I asked, dread crawling up my spine. Here it came – the payback.
“Skip the mocha. I want pure caramel on my cake.”
“Of course you do,” I grunted as I clicked off the phone. Friends were a pain in the butt.
“Bowler and Brothers Publishing. How may I direct your call?”
“I need to speak with Grant Estes,” I said.
“I’m sorry, but Mr. Estes doesn’t work with unsolicited writers.”
“I’m not a writer. Well, I am,” I amended, “but that’s not the reason I called.”
“Perhaps you can state the nature of your call and a number where you can be reached. I’ll make sure Mr. Estes is aware of your request.”
“I don’t want to leave a message,” I said, already aggravated by her fastidious ass. “I need to speak with Mr. Estes right now. It’s urgent.”
“I’m sorry, Ms., what did you say your name was?”
“I didn’t, but it’s Wells. Jessie Wells.”
“Okay, Ms. Wells, you have to understand, Mr. Estes is quite busy. He won’t be available for some time, but if you just leave your contact information with me. . .”
“No,” I said. “I have to speak with him about his work with my father Governor Welling.”
“Wait,” she interrupted, and I noticed that her voice had lost all traces of formality in her surprise. “Did you say Governor Welling was your father?”
“Yes,” I said, “and I have information that makes it imperative that I . . .”
“I’ll put you through right away.”
I listened, dumbfounded, to the series of tones that indicated she was connecting my call. What had just happened? Was it the fact that I was the daughter of a murdered celebrity that made the difference, or was it something more? Something about the governor’s memoirs, perhaps? That was going to be my first question for Estes.
“Ms. Wells?” a masculine voice brought me out of my thoughts.
“I understand you want to speak with me about the governor.”
“I do,” I replied. “Why was your receptionist dead-set against letting me talk to you until she found out who I was?”
“Where are you, Ms. Wells? Can you come to my office tomorrow morning?”
My breath caught hard against my ribs, and I felt that familiar sizzle through my nerve endings. “Why?”
“I think there is a great deal we need to discuss, and it’s better if we do so in person.”
“Shit!” I exclaimed, “You know something.”
“Maybe. And I think you know something, as well. Be here around ten tomorrow morning, and we’ll exchange information.”
“I’ll be there,” I said and hung up the phone. My heart raced and my skin was on fire. It was going to be torture waiting. At least I had a lot of baking to do to keep me distracted.
“Merde!” Jason shouted as he shoved away from his desk, scattering papers across HQ’s tiled floor.
“Temper, temper,” Dillon said, wagging his finger under his partner’s nose.
Jason took a breath, blew it back out. “Nothing. Absolutely nothing,” he said, disgust dripping from every syllable.
“Maybe there’s nothing to find.”
“Maybe not in his financials,” Jason agreed, “but my gut tells me there’s something. We just need to dig a little deeper.”
“Are you sure you want to spend any more time on this? We have a lot of other angles to cover,” Dillon reminded him.
“There’s something here. I want to go back, take a look at Elroy’s time at Staunton, Inc.” He began rifling through the sheets he had pushed to the ground. “Somewhere, we have a list of the employees who worked there with him. Here it is!” he said pulling a page from beneath his chair leg. “I want to find out exactly how it all went down from the inside.”
“If there was something sinister going on, do you think any of them will be straight with us?” Dillon asked.
“We can’t know for sure, but if we talk with employees who are no longer there, we’re more likely to get the truth. And,” he added, “a lie can be just as revealing as the truth.”
“So, who do we start with?” Dillon asked standing to look over Jason’s shoulder. “There are over a hundred names on that list, and it looks like at least half of them left the company around the same time as Elroy.”
“Here,” Jason stabbed his finger at a name in the middle of the page. “Starla Lott. She worked in the same department and left two days later. She’s where we start.” He pulled out his phone. “With any luck, this number is still current.”
“Hello?” a soft voice answered when he placed the cell to his ear.
“Ms. Starla Lott?” he asked.
“Yes,” came the hesitant response.
“This is Jason Anders of the VSP.”
The woman drew in a sharp breath. “Police. What’s wrong? Is it Barry? Did something happen to my husband?”
“No, ma’am, as far as I know, your husband is fine. This call has nothing to do with your family.”
“Thank God,” she sighed.
Her relief was short-lived. “Why are you calling me? If you’re asking for money, you picked a lousy opening.”
“That’s not . . . Look, I think we got off on the wrong foot.” Jason tried to get the conversation back on track. “I’ve called to ask for your help in a matter my partner and I are investigating.”
“You need my help?” her voice, along with her mood, shifted yet again. “What could I possibly help you with?”
“Fourteen years ago, you left a job at Staunton, Incorporated.”
Jason let the statement hang in the air, but it was met with silence. Three seconds ticked by, then ten.
“Ms. Lott,” he finally prompted. “Can we come and speak with you about your time at Staunton and why you chose to leave?”
“Why?” she asked. “That was a long time ago. What could it possibly have to do with anything you’re working on now?”
“I’ll explain everything, but it would be much easier to do in person.”
“There’s nothing of any importance I can tell you.”
“You can’t know that if you don’t know what I’m looking for,” he said.
“So, enlighten me.”
“It’s about Bronson Elroy.”
There was another ten seconds of silence before she spoke. “Fine. I don’t know what good it’ll do, but come ahead.”
Jason sighed as he clicked off. He had come close to losing Lott, and he had a feeling that, despite her assertions to the contrary, she had a great deal of useful information to share. She was skittish, though, so he was going to have to tread very carefully.
“C’mon, partner,” he called to Dillon. “Time to roll.”
The men made the trip in silence, Jason evaluating different strategies in his head and Dillon knowing his partner well enough to understand he needed quiet. It took them only fifteen minutes to find the Lott house, a small bungalow painted light blue. A red tricycle sat in the yard, a bright-eyed doll perched on its seat, and a gray ford sedan was parked in the driveway. Jason pulled in behind the car and he and Dillon approached the front door. It was flung open before they had reached the top of the steps. The woman standing before them was petite with a heart-shaped face and blond hair tied back in a waist-length tail. She wore jeans, a plain white tee, and blue Nikes. Jason could sense Dillon straighten and knew a broad grin had spread across his partner’s mug. The man tended to have a one-track mind when it came to pretty women. He lightly kicked Dillon and gave an almost imperceptible nod toward the child’s toys in the yard. Dillon scowled at him before quickly turning to the woman, his smile back in place.
“Ms. Lott?” he asked before Jason could open his mouth.
“I’m Detective Dillon McCreedy and this is my partner Detective Anders.” He reached out and took the woman’s hand. “Thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. I know this isn’t how you were planning to spend your afternoon.”
“Come in before the neighbors see you,” she said, not softened by Dillon’s attempt at charm. She ushered them into a cozy sitting area with cream-colored walls and light brown carpet scattered with Barbies in various stages of undress.
“Please have a seat,” she said gesturing to a pale pink sofa. “I’m sorry about the mess. I just put Lacey down for her nap and haven’t had a chance to pick up.”
“No need to apologize,” Jason said as she dragged over an armchair so that it faced the couch. She sat and crossed her legs.
“I’m sure this is a disruption to your day, but it is very important that we speak with you,” he continued.
“So you said,” she answered, shifting her weight from one hip to the other. “Why?”
“We are investigating the death of Governor Welling. Are you familiar with the governor’s history?”
She gave a short, derisive snort. “You could say that. I was right there when it all went down.”
“Right where?” Jason asked, his eyes sharp.
“At Staunton,” she said. “That’s what this is about, isn’t it? You want to see if the murder has anything to do with what happened there.”
“Yes,” he admitted. “Do you have any reason to believe that to be the case?”
“I have no idea. Why would you even come to me? I was just a mid-level manager. I didn’t have anything to do with any of that.”
She began twisting her fingers in her lap.
“But you worked with Bronson Elroy.”
“He was my supervisor. We weren’t friends, or even friendly.”
Jason tried a different angle. “I have a feeling that you’re a little nervous about speaking with us. Why is that?”
She looked down at her hands. “I’m being interrogated by the police. Anyone would be nervous.”
“This isn’t an interrogation,” he said quietly. “I think you know that, and I don’t think you’re uncomfortable just because we’re policemen.”
Starla began to shake her head back and forth. Jason wasn’t sure if it was a refusal or if she was responding to some war going on in her head, but he could see resignation in her blue eyes when they met his.
“I really don’t know anything,” she said, “but there was something weird going on.”
“Weird how?” he prompted.
“There were a lot of meetings between Elroy and Mr. Jenkins.”
“And that was unusual?” Dillon asked.
“Very. Account managers like Elroy don’t have meetings with the CEO.”
“Do you know what went on during those meetings?” he inquired.
“Of course not,” she said, “but they definitely weren’t chatting about last night’s ballgame. I could tell that much.”
“What do you think was going on?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “How many times do I have to tell you that?”
Time to ease back, Jason decided.
“Okay. Can you tell me why you left Staunton two days after Elroy?”
“I was told to clean out my desk.” Her voice was bitter. “No explanation, just pack up your stuff and go.”
“And you didn’t ask questions?”
“Yes. I was told my position had been eliminated – restructuring.” She used her fingers to frame that last word in air quotes.
“And it was unexpected?”
“Not really,” she said. “I knew they would be cleaning house after everything came out, and shit runs downhill.”
“Why does speaking with us upset you?” Jason pressed.
“They made me sign a confidentiality agreement. It was the only way I could collect my severance package. I have no idea what the consequences will be if anyone finds out that I broke it.”
Jason felt a thrill of vindication. His gut had been right – something had definitely been going on at Staunton, Incorporated. And people had been willing to pay to keep it under wraps.
“Do you think you’re in danger?” Jason asked.
“I don’t know.” Her voice quavered. “But the last person who scratched at that particular itch was the governor and now he’s dead.”
Dillon reached out and stilled her fidgeting hands with one of his own.
“Don’t worry. We’re going to keep you safe.”
He looked to his partner for confirmation.
“Absolutely,” Jason said. “I’ll put officers here to watch over your family until this is all over.”
And, he added to himself, after we make sure you’re safe, we’re going after Elroy.
Starla nodded and rubbed at the back of her neck. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” he said, already pulling out his phone.