Rory was having what she considered a reasonably good day – her editor hadn’t said a word about her late article or “Casual Friday” attire worn on a Monday, and Cade had managed to go the entire morning without distracting her from her work.
As far as Rory knew, Maggie hadn’t noticed her outfit; when it did cross her mind though, Rory expected that she’d be in for it. Go ahead, fire me, she’d thought this morning as she pulled on her jeans, recklessly rebelling against Paul and the night before. Illogical or not, she felt better wearing jeans. She was standing up to faceless rules, breaking them with the full knowledge that there wasn’t a soul at American Faces magazine who would pink slip her over denim.
As for Cade, well, she just wasn’t up for it today, so his restrained silence was welcome. Typically, if they hadn’t sparred by early afternoon, some resident comedian would consider it necessary to ask what was wrong. Hopefully, today would be an exception and no one would ask. Good day or not, after last Monday, she wasn’t sure just what would come out of her mouth.
When Cade was asked when the show would start, he usually answered with a shrug and a grin. Sometimes though, when he wanted to get a rise out of her, he would say that he’d finally worn her down and they were now having a mad, passionate affair. The sheer exhaustion, he’d insist, was the reason she was so cranky.
Rory’s usual response to that was to emit an unladylike snort of disbelief and leave it at that. However, the last time – last Monday – she was too fed up with men in general, and too exhausted from being kept up the previous night as Paul screamed at her, to let Cade’s teasing go. All she wanted to do was eat a quick lunch away from her desk for once. Instead, she felt that everyone just wanted to see her squirm.
“If you weren’t so busy coming up with new fantasies, your writing would improve,” she snapped, desperate to hide the sudden tears. “As it stands, your work is sophomoric and your dog writes better sentences.”
“And you, my dear,” he laughed, “write prose more complicated than the Victorians.”
“If you’re such a hotshot writer, you take this cover story,” she fired back without thinking. Then she paused and, her voice thick with sarcasm, said: “Oh, I’m sorry. Mags assigned it to me.”
The entire break room seemed to go silent at that, and Rory watched Cade’s jaw clench. After a moment, he stood up and stalked out.
“That wasn’t expected,” someone from the next table remarked. “Looks like Maggie hired another hothead after all. No wonder you two actually get along.”
“Making up is the fun part, you know,” someone else quipped.
She glared and left the break room to find Cade.
He wasn’t a hothead, Rory knew, staring at his empty desk and trying not to let her emotions boil over. His trench coat and briefcase were gone. Hotheads don’t walk away, she thought, regretting that she’d apparently hit a raw nerve. Her hand strayed to adjust the collar of the turtleneck she wore that day. She shouldn’t have reminded him that he’d yet to write a cover.
While they had since made peace, Rory had noticed a new restraint in Cade. Their peace, she thought, was thanks to the humble, and sincere, e-mail that she sent within an hour of his leaving. I apologize for what I said, she wrote. It was crass and uncalled for. You are a good writer, which is what matters in the end. The thought of hurting his feelings, of embarrassing him, bothered her too much to contemplate her pride.
The next morning, she apologized again.
“It’s over, Roar. I really wasn’t that mad,” he said, smiling at her. They were at their respective desks, and he was organizing his papers as if the conversation were secondary, though it was all he could do to keep from walking over to her and pulling her into his arms. “Honest. The whole reason I walked out was because I didn’t want to make it worse with my own comment. I didn’t realize you were at the end of your rope until then. If I had, I wouldn’t have said anything when they jagged me about fighting with you.”
“You know, I’m so tired of that. Why can’t they leave us alone?” She leaned back in her chair, running her hand through her hair and sighing.
I don’t care why. I just know that we’re good for each other, he thought, studying the woman before him. Because I make you laugh, and I just like being with you. Because you need someone who cares about you.
“They’ll get tired of it soon enough. Give it time.”
“No they won’t. You’ve been here nearly a year and they’ve haven’t stopped. They think I’m the office bitch and get a kick out of the way you bait me. It’s like I’m some circus freak,” she couldn’t look at him as she spoke, instead she crossed her arms and stared at the wall behind him.
“That’s not true, Rory.”
“The hell it isn’t. I don’t fit in here. I never did.”
It was the first time that he’d ever seen her indulge in self-pity of any sort, and it surprised him. “Okay, so you’re not Little Mary Sunshine. So what? You’re too good at what you do to worry about whether or not you go to happy hour and get wasted every Friday.”
“I’m with you every Friday.”
“And I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
Her heart caught. In spite of knowing he didn’t mean it, she smiled. “Flirt.”
“Get to work before someone sees me being nice to you. I have a reputation to uphold.”
But today, no arguments. They had barely spoken. There was only an hour to go before Maggie would notice the missing article, yet Rory actually felt a reasonable degree of peace in spite of the deadline.
Cade was the one who couldn’t find any peace. She’d been ignoring him – and everyone else – all day, coming in late with a quick hello to him before settling down to write. The most he got out of her was a cryptic remark about her home computer being broken.
“But you just bought it a few months ago,” he pointed out. “Is it still under warranty?”
She glanced at him, a flash of panic crossing her features. Then she smiled and shrugged. “Yeah, I’ll take care of it.” Her hand went to her bare neck, and she turned her attention again to her article.
“No scarf I see,” Cade persisted. It was a rare day she didn’t wear a scarf or a turtleneck. Today it was just a simple long-sleeved cotton tee with a scoop neck, which added to his distraction.
“Thank you, Captain Obvious,” she replied, her eyes on the screen of her laptop. “Do you mind? I have a deadline to meet.”
Well, he’d tried. Cade frowned and tried not to think about getting her attention. It made him feel like the witless teenage boy she often told him he was.
“They found Julie Daniels!”
Maggie bellowed the news as she made a beeline from her office to Rory’s desk.
As soon as Cade realized Maggie’s direction, he sat back in his chair and waited, having learned early on that Rory could ignore a herd of elephants when she was writing. Watching her while she zoned out was one of his guilty pleasures.
As expected, Rory didn’t hear a word. She was too busy pounding out the article, occasionally cussing at the temperamental keys on the laptop.
After several moments, Rory surfaced, realizing Maggie had stopped at her desk. She waited with her arms crossed, staring at her with a mixture of excitement and annoyance.
The manila folder tucked under Maggie’s arm meant that this visit had nothing to do with Rory’s column or jeans. To be on the safe side, though, she tucked her feet under the chair to hide the fact that she’d kicked off her sandals and that they were now adrift somewhere under her desk. No point in antagonizing her boss any more than she probably already had.
“I need you to cover it,” Maggie said, oblivious to the fact that Rory had no idea what she was talking about. “They found her remains yesterday. Just released this morning; a friend at the coroner’s office clued me in – and only me – which gives us a small window of opportunity over the competition. The news won’t go public until noon. Her stepfather has already scheduled a press conference for twelve-thirty. You’re going. I don’t want eight pages of forensics and detective quotes. Everyone will be rushing to publish the details. I want something more. Talk to the family, her friends, bring Julie back as a person and conjure some outrage over a twenty-one-year-old who was kidnapped and murdered. Do what you do best, Cullers, break their hearts.”
She stared at Maggie blankly. “Julie?”
“Julie Daniels. Charles Sarazen’s stepdaughter. Disappeared ten years ago. Remember?”
Rory nodded slowly.
Maggie frowned. “Is there a problem?”
Problem? Rory swallowed a sudden, hysterical laugh. Her first big story was going to be a sensationalized version of her best friend’s murder. Problem? She was going to splash Julie’s image on the cover of a national magazine. And now, no matter what she wrote, Julie’s memory was about to lose whatever privacy and dignity her family had managed to maintain.
“No. I can do it.” Their friendship was a million years ago. Rory forced a small grin. “How hard can it be, Mags?”
It was just a job, a writing assignment. Nothing more.
Something hit her foot.
Without being obvious, Cade had somehow found and kicked her sandals to her. Grateful for his salvaging her dignity, or at least some of it, she slipped her bare feet in to them.
“I can’t give this to anyone else, Cullers. You know that,” said Maggie.
As she listened to Maggie go on about the article and how it would cement the magazine’s position, Rory felt disconnected, as if she were not in her own body. She could hear herself and Julie, laughing and planning. Two giggling teenage girls dreaming about the future, thinking it would bend to their wills. We’ll get a place right on Carson Street. Won’t it be great, Rory? Imagine living right in the middle of everything. You can write, and I can work in politics. They’d make their own money, leaving their trust funds untouched out of pride. They were women with brains; not ornaments meant for some man’s arm. They would date a score of men before settling down with the right one and having babies.
Rory swiveled in her chair to look out the window behind her desk, staring at the storefronts across the street, ignoring Maggie completely. Well, I’m here on Carson now.
The world looked so normal.
Weren’t coincidences like this better left to mystery novels or movies-of-the-week? Did she really have to write about somebody killing Julie?
“Can I count on you, Cullers?”
Setting her jaw, Rory forced Julie from her mind, ignoring the images of her dead friend that taunted her. “I’ll do it,” she promised, her voice sharp in her ears.
She stared at the folder on her desk without opening it. The end of Julie’s life was in there, no doubt replete with the pictures and the technical details that always come with death.
“You okay, Roar?”
“Yeah, fine,” she mumbled without looking at him. Words were inadequate to explain that her best friend was dead. Someone had killed her and now she, Rory, stood to benefit from it.
“Yes.” How calm she sounded to herself. As if she was discussing the weather.
“I’m fine, Cade.” This time the words came out almost violently. He raised an eyebrow.
“If you say so.”
“You knew her, didn’t you? You wouldn’t act like this over a stranger.”
“Yes or no, Roar? You knew her.”
“I have to get out of here,” she said, checking her watch. The press conference was in two hours and she had nowhere to go until then. Livvie’s Coffee Shop across the street was as good a place to work as any. Any place would do, as long as Cade wasn’t there.
“Let me know when you’re ready to talk.”
She didn’t answer him. So much for this being one of her good days.
They identified her by her dental records. Julia Margaret Daniels was finally, formally, declared dead by the exact match of six silver fillings and a single chipped tooth.
According to the press releases, the noon news, and Charles’s press conference, she’d been shot once in the center of her forehead. Her remains had been found in a shallow grave by hikers digging a fire pit on property once owned by the Sarazens. The current owner was listed as G.L.R. Resources, who’d purchased it from Jersey Investments, but no other information regarding the current owners was immediately available.
The rotted remains of the red dress Julie had worn that night were found with her, as were her shoes, handbag, and earrings. A choker of red and black, oblong glass beads was found alongside her body. One of the investigators penciled in the remark that, given that some of the beads were broken or missing, it appeared to have been stepped on.
The necklace, and its condition, was left out of the information released to the public.
Sitting on her living room couch, her feet propped up on the glass coffee table, Rory read and reread the coroner’s and police reports, unable to put them aside, unable to erase the image of Julie facing her killer as he pulled the trigger. She wondered if Julie’s eyes were closed.
I have to do this right. I owe it to you, Julie.
Stoically, she sifted through the file that Maddie had provided, as well as her own collection of letters, articles, and pictures. When did you know you were going to die? Rory wondered, opening the folder of newspaper clippings and police reports. Were you praying for it? What was it like to feel the gun barrel against your head? Who was the last person you thought about, Julie?