I didn't even know how to use a gun before yesterday, and I certainly hadn't become a crack shot overnight. That didn't bode well for my chances of survival at the moment -especially since I was currently staring down the wrong end of somebody else's barrel. What was I supposed to do? Duck? Shoot first? Run?
Maybe the decision would have been easier if I hadn't loved the guy pointing the gun at me. I watched his trigger finger tense as the smoky, toxic air around us seemed to grow even thicker. Walls shook and the floor rolled beneath me as an explosion thundered through the building. The PetroPlex flagship oil refinery was fast on its way to becoming nothing but a memory.
The doorframe buckled before my eyes-my only means of escape. Sharp orange tongues of flame lapped at me from above, sending down a rain of fiery particles as acoustic ceiling tiles disintegrated overhead.
That's when I knew that gun or no gun, I was going to die.
The thing about cancer is it's hard to prove somebody gave it to you on purpose, but I can prove it. In fact, I make a living proving it. I sue oil refineries that would rather save a buck than comply with safety regulations designed to do important things like, you know, keep people alive. It's not unusual for my clients to pass away in the middle of a case, but I'd never had an expert witness turn up dead until today.
My favorite client, Gracie Miller, hurried toward me as I walked up the stairs to the courthouse. I had hoped to put off talking to her until after I'd spoken to the judge. Her untamed gray hair spiraled out of a would-be bun, curls going in a million different directions.
"Chloe!" she said. "Is it true? Say it ain't true!"
She didn't wait for me to answer.
"I didn't believe it at first," Gracie said, "because I heard it from crazy Mrs. Bagley, and everybody knows she ought to be in a home already. But then I called Mrs. Scott, and sure enough, her husband is out at the crime scene with all the other police, and oh! I've lived here for forty years and we ain't never had a murder!"
That seemed like a pretty big stretch to me, seeing as how we lived in Kettle, Texas, human population: four-thousand; gun population: thirty-four-thousand-three-hundred-fifty six. With all those guns around, there had to have been an incident at some point in the last forty years.
I took Gracie's arm. She was not going to like hearing that yes, Dr. Schaeffer-her expert witness and the key to winning her case-was indeed dead. He had been scheduled to present critical evidence at a make or break summary judgment hearing twenty-four hours from now. A loss tomorrow would mean the end of our case.
Gracie searched my face and saw the truth before I said a word.
"Oh Lord, a'mighty! What are we gonna do?" she said.
I had a plan, but it was kind of a desperate one-and Gracie didn't need to know about it, now or ever.
I smiled encouragingly as I carefully omitted the truth. "I'm about to ask Judge Delmont for a continuance. If he says yes, we'll have enough extra time to find a new witness."
"Sweet Jesus, Mary, and George W. Bush!" Gracie said. "You know perfectly well he ain't gonna agree to that! Ever since my husband died, it's been real lean times. I'm probably gonna lose my house. And I ain't got all his medical bills paid yet, neither." Her lip trembled and one big tear welled up and left a streak on her face before it fell to the ground.
Gracie's husband, Derrick Miller, had died only a month ago from a rare form of leukemia caused by exposure to a toxic chemical called benzene. Derrick had worked his whole adult life in the benzene unit of the PetroPlex oil refinery situated in the middle of town. PetroPlex had never provided Derrick with safety equipment and also had never warned Derrick that benzene would kill him. I was now representing the Millers in a wrongful death suit against the Big Oil industry giant, and tomorrow's hearing would have been a slam-dunk win if somebody hadn't offed our expert witness.
"You think it was just a coincidence?" Gracie asked. "Him turning up dead like that the day before our hearing?"
Of course I didn't think it was a coincidence. The whole situation reeked. If your expert witness dies of a heart attack while surfing in Aruba, that's life. If he's murdered the day before he's set to testify at a hearing that can make or break a case, that's friggin' suspicious. But I didn't see any sense in getting Gracie more worked up than she already was.
"One thing at a time," I said. Let me go in there and get the judge to move the hearing date back, and we'll worry about the rest later."
Like it was going to be that easy.
Gracie nodded. "If anybody can do it, you can. I gotta get back to my cake. I left it in the oven, and the pastor's wife gets real snarky when I bake 'em too long. That woman hates a dry cake. It beats all I ever seen."
"Your cakes are always perfect," I said.
Gracie beamed. "I got another one mixing up just for you. Strawberry with cream cheese icing-your favorite. You come on by this afternoon and get you a slice, you hear?"
My mouth watered just thinking about it. "That sounds great," I said, omitting no truth there. I waved goodbye and hurried into the courthouse.
Judge Delmont was waiting for me in chambers. When I walked in, he had his arms folded across his chest and a look on his face he reserved for. . . well, me. He didn't like me too much. I was lucky he'd even agreed to an emergency ex parte conference.
Here went nothing. I mentally willed myself into super-lawyer mode.
We exchanged greetings, and I pulled a motion for continuance out of my briefcase and slid it across his desk.
He took a cursory look and laid it back down. "Look," he said. "I'd like to help you out, but it ain't my fault your expert's dead."
"Not dead," I said. "Murdered. There's a difference."
Delmont shrugged. "What do you expect me to do about it? I ain't Jesus. I can't resurrect him."
"I just need time to regroup," I said, pulling some more papers out of my briefcase and sliding them over to the judge. "I already drafted the order for you. All I need is your signature-no miracles required."
Delmont shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "If you had any evidence to support your claim-"
"I have it. I just need an expert witness to present it, but I can't find a replacement for Dr. Schaeffer by tomorrow morning."
"Well," Delmont said, "If you can get opposing counsel to agree to the extra time, I'll consider the motion."
Uh, right. "Buford Buchanan is conveniently out of town, and he is not answering his phone. Besides, you and I both know better than to expect that he would voluntarily agree to something so reasonable."
Delmont pulled a cigar out of the humidor on his desk and took a long whiff. "Smells good, don't it?"
He offered it to me. The gesture felt like an executioner handing a condemned prisoner his last cigarette before facing the firing squad.
I shook my head. "I trust your judgment."
"On the cigar. Just not the case."
This conversation wasn't going as well as I'd hoped, and that was saying something, considering I hadn't hoped for much at all. Everybody around here knew darn well the judge in this town had oil stains on his hands.
I sighed. "I'd like to hear your reasoning as to why you think a continuance wouldn't be appropriate in this situation."
Delmont leaned back in his chair and propped his custom-made snakeskin boots on his desk, which was decorated with a humidor, an ash tray (full), a cactus, and a jackalope head. No pictures of wife or family.
"The case has been on the docket for well over a year. Besides that, I got too many cases against PetroPlex floating around here already."
"And that ought to tell you something about the kind of business they're running around here," I said.
PetroPlex is notorious for flouting safety violations and dumping known carcinogens into the air and water. The EPA has been after them for years, but they don't care. It's cheaper to pay the fines than comply with regulations.
"It ain't their fault there's lawyers like you slinking around trying to sue 'em out of existence. They employ more than half the people who live here. If they leave, Kettle dies."
"If they don't clean up their act, Kettle dies anyway."
Delmont rolled his eyes.
Almost nothing makes me madder than an eye roll from a good ol' boy. I mentally pulled up my "big girl" panties, leaned over his desk and delivered my most intense "I-am-a-damn-good-lawyer-and-you-will-listen-to-me" glare.
"Look," I said. "Maybe you think cancer is something that happens to other people. Maybe you think you put on a pink ribbon once a year and you've done your part to fight the disease. But if you've seen cancer-really seen it-you know that all the pink ribbons in the world just aren't enough."
Delmont pulled out a match and lit the cigar he'd been holding. Clearly he wasn't concerned about cancer in the least. "You finished, Miss Taylor?"
I lapsed into a coughing fit as I waved the cigar smoke out of my face. "You know PetroPlex is dangerous," I said. "Even if you forget the cancer, how about the explosions? How about the toxic clouds?"
"You got an explosion in this case you wanna talk about?"
"Not in this one, but-"
"Stick to this case, why don't ya?"
I squared my shoulders and relaxed my glare-but only by a little bit. There was no way I was going to let this stuffed shirt redneck pawn intimidate me into backing down. There was too much riding on tomorrow's hearing to just roll over on it. Not only would Gracie wind up in a world of hurt if we didn't come out on top of this, but I would probably also lose my job. I'd had a pretty nasty string of highly questionable losses in this courtroom under this judge for more than a year now, which was fast destroying my reputation as a good lawyer. . . not to mention depleting my bank account. Wrongful death attorneys don't get paid if they don't win, and I'd been eating nothing but Ramen for weeks.
Meanwhile, I was pretty sure Judge Delmont was living fat and happy off the scraps PetroPlex passed him under the table, but I couldn't prove it.
"Okay," I said. "Let's cut to the chase, here. I'm gonna stop pretending like I expect you to be reasonable. So if you wanna stop pretending like anything I have to say matters to you, that'll be just fine with me."
"What are my chances of getting you to sign a continuance?"
"I'd say 'slim to none,' but I'd hate to give you any false hope."
I took a deep breath. What I was about to do was likely to land me in serious trouble if it didn't come off right. On the other hand, Delmont really didn't leave me any other choice.
I reached down to my briefcase and lifted out a manila envelope. Slid it slowly across his desk.
Delmont rested his cigar in his ash tray and pulled the envelope toward him. He cracked open the flap and pulled out a series of glossy eight by tens. As he looked at the photos, the lines in his face seemed to deepen.
"You really don't look good naked," I said. "And I wonder what your wife would think if she saw you with that blonde?" I leaned forward conspiratorially. "There's no way those boobs are real, right?"
Delmont shoved the pictures back in the envelope.
My heart felt like a jackhammer inside me. I prayed Delmont couldn't actually see it pumping. If I showed just one sign of weakness, this whole thing would backfire for sure.
Delmont put his hands on the desk and leaned over it, getting right in my face.
"You think this is a game, Chloe?" He spoke slowly, softly.
"I most certainly do not," I said. "The question is, do you?"
"I could have you disbarred for this. Throw you in jail."
"But you won't." I tried to put as much meaning behind those words as possible.
Delmont pulled back abruptly. "Where did you get those?"
I had gotten them from Miles, my fabulous paralegal. Where he'd gotten them I didn't know. Frankly, I had been kind of afraid to ask.
"It doesn't matter where they came from," I said. "What matters is the continuance. I expect to see the order signed and filed by eight a.m. tomorrow morning."
"Or what?" Delmont asked.
"I think you know what."
Delmont got up from his desk and paced back and forth across his bearskin rug, his fat rolls jiggling with each heavy step. When he turned his back on me, I could almost see his life-sized portrait of Robert E. Lee reflecting off the fresh perspiration on his bald head.
I waited. The courthouse was quiet today. It seemed as though the loudest sound in the room was the sound of my own heartbeat.
"Fine," he finally said.
Joy welled up inside me, but I didn't allow it to show.
"But you only get a week."
And just like that, the joy was gone. "A week! That is a joke! I need six months!"
"You get a week, or I will call your bluff and report you to the bar."
"What makes you think I'm bluffing?"
"What makes you think I give two pig farts about keeping my wife?"
My jaw dropped open against my will. Seeing as how this was my first attempt at blackmail, I was kind of at a loss. I had never considered the fact that he might not even want to keep his wife.
"Get out," Delmont said. "And pray to God the next time you stand in front of me you got a jury on your side."
I gathered my things together and stood.
"A week," Delmont said. "I don't care what else you've got up that sleeve of yours, that's all you get. That's the extent of my patience. Got it?"
I tapped the photographs on the desk with my index finger. "I'll just leave these here for you to think about. I've got my own set."
I didn't wait for Delmont to reply. I just walked out.
I was so distracted as I walked down the concrete stairs of the courthouse and into the town square that I stepped wrong and broke the heel off one of my Louboutin shoes. I tumbled down the steps, my briefcase popped open, and my papers scattered all over the town square.
I cursed at the shoe. The Louboutins were a relic of better times-the times when I'd actually had no trouble winning cases. The times when the deck wasn't completely stacked against me.
Even if I could find a replacement expert in a week (which was highly unlikely), all of Dr. Schaeffer's evidence and files were locked away in his house behind a whole lot of crime scene tape. We only had one set because my boss was too cheap to foot the Xerox bill.
If I couldn't convince the police to let me in and get those files, I'd just blackmailed the judge and put myself in jeopardy for nothing.
It was only three blocks back to my office.
I parked and limped indoors. Mountains of boxes lined the hallways-all of which contained my boss's files, not mine. Art hung on the wall, but you couldn't see it behind the stacks of cardboard.
I twisted and turned my way through the paper maze until I found my little cubicle, from which I daily fought Big Oil. My paralegal, Miles, was waiting for me.
He took one look at me and zeroed in on my broken heel. "Oh my gawd. Not the Louboutins! Please tell me you broke that heel wedging it between Delmont's butt cheeks."
Miles is the kind of guy who sets off even the most recalcitrant gaydars.
"Sadly, no," I said, tossing off the shoes and collapsing into my desk chair.
Miles crossed his arms and eyed me with concern. "Too bad. That would have been worth the loss. Did you get the continuance at least?"
I nodded, and Miles did the happy dance. "Woo-hoo! Atta girl!"
Our boss, Dick Richardson, heard the commotion and popped his head into my office. "Oh, good, you're back. Didja get it done, or are you fired?"
Miles glared at him, but I was unperturbed. Dick talked to me like that all the time. He's the kind of micromanaging, paranoid, jerk boss you want to avoid at all costs. His first name kind of sums him up. If I hadn't been out of other options when I moved to Kettle two years ago, I never would have agreed to work for him.
"I got the continuance," I said. "If you wanna fire me today, it's gotta be over something else."
"Hrmph. I'm shocked. 'Bout time you won one. How'd you manage it?"
"I used my superior persuasive skills, for which he was no match."
"You take your shirt off for him or something?"
Before I could figure out what to say to that, Miles chipped in. "She has other assets."
Dick made a noise that was something between a grunt and a laugh. "Not the kind that appeal to you, I bet."
Before Miles could launch into a tirade that might produce negative consequences, I said, "If you don't mind, we've got work to do."
"Yeah, get back to work," Dick said. "I gotta go into Houston to pick up my new car, anyway. Settle a case and generate some cash while I'm gone, will ya?"
Geez. Another new car. This guy was living high on the hog and I was at home eating Ramen. What was wrong with this picture?
I waited until Dick was well out of earshot before dropping my bomb on Miles. "Okay, so you've heard all the good news," I said. "Now for the bad news."
His face fell. "Oh no. There's bad news?"
"Yeah," I said. "Pretty bad. We only have a week to prep for the next hearing."
Miles looked like he was about to faint. I wouldn't have blamed him. I might have already fainted myself if the sheer urgency of the situation hadn't kept me moving forward.
Miles sat down hard. "We can't find and prep another expert in a week."
"I know that."
"Good Lord, Chloe! Why didn't you just come out and say so! You got my hopes up and called the boss in here and-"
"Um, I think he came in here on his own."
"I don't want Dick to know about this until we have another expert in place."
"Chloe, you are dreaming. Dick and Delmont and the whole PetroPlex crew have a poker game scheduled for tonight, and all his poker buddies already know! How do you think you're going to keep it from him? This is not going to go well for you."
"You never know. Maybe they don't talk business at those games."
"And maybe a leprechaun will fly up your arse and leave a pot of gold!"
"It's the best I can hope for," I said. "I might get another case to settle before Dick figures it out. We have the rest of the afternoon. And besides, we might be able to find and prep a new witness before next week."
"But we haven't even got all of Dr. Schaeffer's research, and his place is a crime scene! You'll never be able to get your hands on it in just a week!"
"Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures," I said.
"What are you going to do? Break in?"
"If I have to." Hey, I'd already committed blackmail today. One more moral breach wouldn't matter too much, right?
"Girl, you have lost your mind."
"Not yet," I said, "but I'll be there soon without your help. Have you found out who the detective on the case is yet?"
"Of course! It's Jensen Nash." Miles fanned his face with his hand and raised his gaze to the ceiling in a mock partial swoon.
Jensen Nash was one of the town's local detectives. I didn't know a lot about him except that he was an eligible bachelor and purportedly the sexiest male in a two-hundred mile radius. But this was according to the local girls, whose taste in men I seriously questioned. I was not really into the cowboy type, which comprised the majority of the male population in this town.
"Have you been able to get a hold of him yet?"
"Yes. I already asked him for an appointment on your behalf, and he refuses to see you today. I also told him there wasn't much time, and that you were dealing with matters of life and death," Miles said.
"He wasn't impressed. He said he deals with matters of life and death every day, and that the living, especially living attorneys, can wait."
"He said that?"
"Yeah. But in a really sexy voice." Miles sighed. "You should call him."
I buried my face in my hands. Honestly. I just needed one thing-one thing-to go right, to be easy, just one time today. Was that really too much to ask?
"Go see him in person," Miles said. "Wear something low-cut."
"That is cheap and disgusting. . . and worth a shot." I rolled my chair back from my desk and inspected my broken shoe. "Are you up to finishing the draft of this motion?"
"Sure," Miles said. "Go get him, tiger. But take my advice and go home and freshen up first."
"That bad?" I asked.
"Girl, your hair looks like it went through a hay bailer. Change into something cuter. And do I even need to mention the shoes?
I sighed and limped out the door.
When I pulled into my driveway, the looming afternoon shadows of PetroPlex's largest refinery draped my sorry excuse for a rental house. The refinery was one of the largest in Texas and the town's supporting industry, employing over 1500 of Kettle's total population of 4000. The regional corporate headquarters were attached to this refinery and employed another 500 people. The complex was large and situated smack in the middle of town, right in everyone's backyard. Here, workers refined over 140 million gallons of crude oil into gasoline and other substances every day.
Residents whose property abutted the refinery, like mine did, were used to living under the refinery's continuous cloud of smoke and the frequent spurts of fire from the safety flares, which ignited every time the refinery needed to burn off excess vapors. Every now and then, something would go wrong, and the neighborhood would be filled with the smell of toxic chemicals. Sometimes alarms would even go off, warning nearby residents to stay indoors and seal the cracks in windows and doors with wet towels to keep the chemicals from getting in.
Worst of all were the explosions, and there had been a few. Most of them were minor, but several years ago a large one had killed ten people and shook the neighborhood's foundations.
I hobbled out of my car, grabbed the mail, and stumbled inside, kicking off the now defunct Louboutins. My long-haired Chihuahua/Sheltie mutt Lucy (so named for her red head-a characteristic she shared with me) raced towards me and jumped up and down, tongue lolling out, eyes wide. I put my stuff down and scooped her up to pet her hello. She licked my face and I kissed her on the head. "Are you hungry?" I asked.
She responded by leaping out of my arms and racing to the back bedroom where I kept her food bowl. I followed her, scooped some food into her bowl, and returned to the kitchen to look at the mail.
Bills, bills, and bills, all of which were 60-90 days late. Student loans in excess of six figures. Electricity. Phone and Internet. No cable, though-I had long since let that go. I swore out loud when I saw a demand letter from my landlord. I was sure to be evicted soon, at this rate. I really needed to settle a case and generate some cash.
There was also a notice from the City of Dallas threatening to repossess my dog if I didn't send them proof of vaccination within seven business days. I figured I could at least safely ignore that one, since I didn't live in Dallas anymore and I doubted they'd come all the way down here to get her. Still, I did need to find a way to pay for the vaccinations soon. Down here, you never knew what would jump out and bite you.
I threw open my pantry to see if maybe there was some hidden gem in there I had forgotten about. Sadly, there was only Ramen. I was really much more in the mood for fajitas-and margaritas. Patron margaritas. The kind that were served in the big glasses the size of a human head with salt on the rim and a sangria floater.
Maybe if I played my cards right, I could get Detective Jensen Nash to buy me dinner. After all, he'd be more likely to spill his guts over drinks, right? Maybe I wouldn't even tell him I was a lawyer. Maybe I'd just go down there and turn on the charm and lure him out of the office and wham! Before he knew it, I'd know all about Dr. Schaeffer's murder and I'd have my files back.
This seemed like a pretty good plan, assuming I could get it to work. I have never considered myself beautiful. My bright red hair and pale porcelain skin are a bit out of place among all the tanned blondes down here in south Texas. Because I was hungry and really wanted those fajitas, I prayed Nash was into the red-headed type.
Trying to forget about my financial situation for a moment, I went to the bedroom, flinging off today's office wear as I went. I changed into a black lace number layered over a solid red cotton tank and very tiny, very fitted jean shorts, then I slipped on some red high heels. I felt pretty naked for what would essentially be a business meeting, but on the up side, I looked absolutely nothing like a lawyer, a breed of people Jensen Nash apparently hated.
I told myself this was totally going to work. Then I shut my eyes really tight while I tried to make myself believe it.
Okay, who was I kidding? I opened my eyes and took a moment to fantasize, not for the first time, about what my life would have been like if I had actually married my ex-fiancé, Dallas trial attorney Dorian Saks-a partner and colleague at my old law firm. He was more tall, more dark, and more handsome than the tallest, darkest, handsomest man you've ever seen. He owned a mansion in Highland Park, an area of supremely-concentrated wealth near downtown, and he was a movie star in the courtroom. When he looked at you, everyone else disappeared. I was absolutely certain that every time he stepped before a jury, each juror felt as though there was no one else in the room and that nothing mattered except producing a verdict in Dorian's favor.
If I had married him, I would have had a cook, a housekeeper, and a personal shopper to replace my broken Louboutins. I would have had a fireplace in the bedroom and a Jacuzzi in the bathroom. I would have had a diamond ring big enough to have its own zip code.
And I would have had an eternally broken heart. That was the fantasy killer.
Dorian was simply incapable of honesty and fidelity. This I discovered after we were engaged. Dorian's secretary knocked on my office door one day and told me Dorian had taken her out for a steak dinner. He told her he was going to marry me and asked her not to tell me she was sleeping with him.
Dorian's ego was such that he thought that would fly, but I'm no doormat. He lost both me and his secretary, but I was sure he'd had no trouble finding replacements for both of us.
The toxic torts circle in Dallas is a small one. I couldn't handle staying there and facing him every day, so I left town. The only job in my practice area that was available anywhere in Texas happened to be here in Kettle.
Living in this crummy rent house buried under stacks of unpaid bills, I wondered for a fleeting moment if maybe I could have lived with the infidelity after all. He had loved me enough to propose. Couldn't that have been enough?
I thought about it for a moment, but in my heart I knew, even stuck down here in Kettle, Texas with a job that paid jack squat, I wouldn't trade places with whoever Dorian was with now.
I noticed a chip in my fingernail polish, and that brought me back to the present. I pulled out a bottle of top coat to smooth it over and tried not to let the situation get me down. Sure, I was feeling a little desperate, but I vowed to myself that Jensen Nash would never, ever know. I would be smooth. I would be charming. He wouldn't know what hit him.
I checked my mascara one last time, spritzed on some Michael Kors perfume, ruffled the fur on Lucy's head, and headed out the door and down to the police station. Look out, Jensen Nash! Here I come!
The local police station consisted of one plain red brick building surrounded by a host of mobile trailers. Rather than buy or build a new building as the department expanded, the city just kept dropping in trailers and setting up offices in those. I found Jensen Nash in his office in one of the trailers. His name appeared in neat white block letters on a black sign attached to his door. I opened the door and walked in without knocking.
He barely bothered to glance up at me. It was hard to tell by the look on his face what he thought of me or my skimpy ensemble. That was not encouraging.
"You're off for the evening, I take it," he said.
"Um, yes, actually, but-"
"Chloe Taylor, right?" he asked without looking up.
"I thought I told your paralegal I was busy."
Crap. So much for my "I'm not a lawyer" ruse. "You did, but-"
"You thought you'd come down here anyway and charm me with your feminine wiles."
Wow. I hadn't felt this out of control of a conversation since I was a zitty teenager trying to get up the courage to talk to my first crush. To make matters worse, Detective Nash was, in fact, the sexiest man I had seen in a 200 mile radius. He was even sexier than Dorian. He had Rob Lowe good looks. Even through his black suit jacket, I could see that he was incredibly fit. If he possessed even an ounce of personal charm, I might have fallen instantly in love. Instead, I found myself stammering and irritated.
"How do you know who I am?"
"I'm a detective," he said. "I know things."
"Would you care to share?"
"Nope," he said.
I bent over his desk, resting my weight on my elbows, chin in my hands, desperately trying to think of a way to get him to engage.
"Your victim was my expert witness," I said. "I knew him pretty well. We should talk."
Nash steadily refused to look at me. "I don't think so."
"I can help you," I said.
"I doubt it."
"Then maybe you can help me," I said.
"I doubt that, too."
Okay. Now he was starting to piss me off. "Well if you won't help yourself, and if you won't help me, how about helping Gracie Miller? Or are you just a heartless sonofabitch who doesn't care about old lady widows and their kittens?"
Nash looked up in surprise. "Kittens? What do old lady widows and kittens have to do with anything?"
I took advantage of the opening. "My client Gracie Miller used to be married to a guy named Derrick. He worked for PetroPlex in the benzene unit for forty years, starting right out of high school. When opposing counsel deposed him a year ago, his wife Gracie, who he married when he was nineteen, had to push him through the doors and into my office in a wheelchair. I had to wheel in his oxygen tank. He had no hair, not even eyebrows or eyelashes because of chemotherapy. He had radiation burns on his face and chest. He had to take off his oxygen mask and gasp for breath just to answer questions for the jackass PetroPlex attorney who spent the entire day trying to prove that even though Petroplex never warned Derrick that benzene causes cancer, that even though PetroPlex was too cheap to install the safety devices that would prevent benzene leaks, and even though PetroPlex never supplied respiratory masks or safety equipment, they were not to blame for my client's cancer and subsequent death."
I had finally succeeded in gaining Detective Nash's attention. I still couldn't quite read his face, though.
"Derrick," I said, "slaved away for years to save up for a down payment on a tiny farm. He took Gracie out to dinner at Olive Garden once a year for their anniversary because that was the best he could afford. And on my birthday last year, Gracie baked me a cake. From scratch. With homemade chocolate icing and real butter. And incidentally, my birthday was the day before Derrick's funeral, which was also the day after he died, at home, gasping for breath in his wheeled-in hospital bed. Gracie is thoughtful like that."
Nash's eye twitched almost imperceptibly. What did that mean? "And the kittens?"
"Gracie has a cat," I said. "The cat had kittens, but they all drank water from a toxic pond near the refinery and died."
He was silent for a few moments. I waited. Finally, he said, "All right. So your client's sob-story notwithstanding, I have to know. Are you a particular fan of Ramen noodles?"
"What?" My eyes went wide. "What kind of a random question is that?"
"Do you buy Ramen noodles because you like the way they taste?"
"I love them," I lied. I folded my arms and glared at him, nonverbally daring him to imply otherwise.
"I couldn't help but notice the redhead in the grocery store last Sunday wearing a thousand dollars' worth of designer clothes and buying fifteen or twenty packages of Ramen. Closer to twenty, I think, because you didn't check out in the express lane."
I'm not sure, but I think that if Nash had had a mirror on the wall in his office, I might have seen my face turn as red as my hair right about then.
"A woman like you buying food like that. I thought it was strange. Don't get the wrong idea. It's just that I'm a detective, and I'm trained to notice things that seem. . . off. So I was wondering whether or not you have a genuine love for all things Ramen."
"Well, I just, you know. . . the spice packets come in so many varieties." My fingers tingled. My head felt like it was floating up off my neck. I could feel my body shrinking. I thought I might die of embarrassment at any minute.
"I asked the checkout clerk if he knew your name. He did."
"I'm flattered," I said sourly.
Nash smiled. "So did you come down here dressed like that because you're looking for a dinner date?"
My jaw dropped open, but only for an instant. "You've got a lot of nerve accusing me of strolling around like a hooker in search of her next meal." Okay, of course I was cruising for dinner, but I'd been hoping not to be totally obvious about it. "I went to law school. I passed the bar exam. I am a professional."
"So is that a no?"
I stopped short. "A no to what?"
"A no to my dinner invitation."
"You didn't extend a dinner invitation," I snapped. "And if you had, I wouldn't be inclined to say yes."
Nash laughed. "But you would go."
Well, yes. But no way was I about to fall all over myself rushing to admit it. "Let me tell you something," I said. "Every other girl in this town may be falling all over themselves trying to get a date with you, but I'm not that kind of girl. I don't just keel over in the face of good looks. I am a strong, confident, individual, highly accomplished professional, and you would be lucky to get a date with me."
"I'm sure that's true," he said, glancing at me sideways. "So you think I'm good looking, then?"
"I didn't say that!" I said. "I was talking about other people. The ones who might think you're good looking. Not me."
Nash laughed again. I was really starting to feel like the village idiot, and that was saying a lot, considering that I lived in Kettle.
"Chloe Taylor," he said, "may I buy you dinner?"
I groaned. "Yes. But only because I need to ask you some questions about Dr. Schaeffer, and I feel like you'd be more talkative over margaritas. Pick me up in an hour."
I scrawled my address on a Post-It, flung it at him, and hurried out the door.
Judge Delmont's cell phone buzzed. He picked it up. "Talk to me."
"The police chief said Nash is about to leave town with Chloe Taylor," said a gruff voice on the other end of the line.
"You got a tail on them?" Delmont asked.
"All my manpower is on the files. Schaeffer's laptop is encrypted, and there are ten boxes of stuff in print. That's just the stuff we got. There are thirty more boxes where that came from. We have to find out exactly how much he knew before we're certain we've plugged the leak."
"Thirty more boxes?"
"There wasn't enough time to get them all before Nash and his guys got there. We need to secure the rest before Taylor does."
"I see. You got any idea where Nash and Taylor are headed?"
"Some place for dinner. Nash is going to pick her up at her house at 6:30."
"A date?" Delmont rearranged the cigar ashes in the tray with the end of his pen.
"Not according to Chief Scott."
"How would he know?"
"He's got Nash's office bugged, as of yesterday. You know Nash and his goody-two-shoes reputation. If he happens to get wind of us, no telling what he might do."
"You think Taylor will find out anything we don't want her to know?"
"Unlikely. I don't think she's aware anything out of the ordinary is going on."
Delmont snorted. "Please. Her expert turns up dead the night before a summary judgment hearing, and you don't think she thinks anything out of the ordinary is going on? Get real. She's a big city lawyer. She ain't stupid. And you've got piss poor timing. You should have called me first."
"It wasn't your call to make."
"Maybe not, but just FYI, Taylor ain't playing by the rules anymore, either."
"What do you mean?" the voice on the other end of the phone asked.
"If I don't grant her motion for continuance tomorrow morning, I'm gonna lose my wife-that's what I mean."
The person on the other end of the line grunted. "Huh. Well, is that altogether a bad thing? Thought you were getting tired of her anyway."
"Yeah, but I'd just as soon the local tongues not go a waggin'."
"I'll cut you a deal."
"A deal! You've been hanging out with Dick Richardson too much lately. I'm sick of you guys and your deals."
"A deal," the voice said. "Here's how it is. You get somebody to man all the roads back into town, and I'll get somebody to go through her car and her house. There's gotta be something there you can use to get her to back off. Nobody's perfect. When you see Nash's vehicle, call me and warn me to get out. Things go my way, and you can deny that motion for continuance come tomorrow morning."
"Fine. I'll call you," Delmont said. "But I don't like it. Frankly, I think you and your guys are getting careless."
"I don't care what you think, and even if I did, you're not in a position to judge here. Just remember who put you where you are."
"I was elected fair and square."
"Sure, on my campaign money."
Delmont held his tongue. He'd always thought it was stupid that Texas elected their judges instead of appointing them. On the other hand, the system did offer certain advantages for people like him.
But now he was starting to feel a little out of control of the situation. "Listen here," he said. "I want you to keep me in the loop on all this. I don't want to get caught by surprise on this case, understand?"
"All right. Just so we're straight. Otherwise you may find you start disliking some of my more important rulings."
"That would be inconvenient," said the gruff voice.
"Darn straight." Delmont hung up the phone.
Nash drove me to the nearby town of Rosethorn, which was slightly larger than Kettle and had a better variety of restaurants. We needed to leave town for dinner, seeing as how the exhaustive list of places to eat in Kettle included Dairy Queen, McDonald's, Grandma's Fried Chicken, and a place called Caliente, where the only flavor of food is jalapeno. I love jalapenos, but I haven't eaten at Caliente, mainly because I haven't been able to afford it lately. I've heard they serve jalapeno-flavored goat, and you can even get jalapeno-flavored rattlesnake there if you want to. (Apparently, some people actually like to eat rattlesnake-a fact I find hard to comprehend.)
When we got to the restaurant, Nash pulled out my chair and unfolded my napkin. I was just on the verge of thinking some nice things about him when he sat down and pulled a pen and small notebook out of his pocket.
An interrogation. Not a dinner date. Wow, how naïve was I? This guy was a real pro. He had gone out of his way to put me off balance so that he could ask me questions. Not the other way around.
Of course he would want to question me. I had been working with Dr. Schaeffer the day he was killed. As stupid as I had felt earlier, I felt infinitely more moronic now.
"Really?" I eyed his notepad pointedly. "You could have just taken my appointment request and asked me what you wanted to know down at the station."
"Frankly," he said, "I really didn't have time to see you today. I had just gotten back from the crime scene when your office called, and there were more important people to talk to."
"Like people who actually had a motive to kill Dr. Schaeffer."
"The details of the investigation are confidential."
"But here I am. So what changed?"
"Certain other people were unavailable. And you did show up in very skimpy clothes." If he were resisting the urge to leer or grin, he didn't show it. "And I'm hungry. A man has got to eat, and there's nothing wrong with multi-tasking."
I folded my arms across my chest defensively. "Are you always all work and no play?"
"Would you accept an invitation to find out?"
I rolled my eyes. "Stop it. We both know this is not a date. I want information, you want information, so let's have at it. Ladies first."
"By all means."
"What happened to Dr. Schaffer?" I knew he'd been murdered. I just didn't know how.
"The details have not been released to the public yet."
"I'm not the public."
"That's right. You're worse. You're the deceased's hiring attorney. My turn."
This guy was really a piece of work. "You don't get to insult me and then ask me questions."
Our waiter arrived, asking us what we'd like to drink.
"Two margaritas," Nash said, without hesitation.
"And you don't get to order for me either," I said through gritted teeth.
The waiter, sensing my agitation, hesitated for a moment before turning to me and asking me what I'd like to drink.
"Margarita," I said. "The big one in a glass that's the size of a human head. With Patron and a sangria swirl."
The waiter nodded and walked back toward the bar.
Nash looked at me with one raised eyebrow.
"And you don't get to look at me like that, either." In the looks department, he was adorable, which was seriously killing my game.
"When you are finished telling me everything I may not do, I'd like to know why you're so anxious to get inside Schaeffer's house."
I blinked, surprised. How could he possibly have known that? "Who says I want in his house?"
"Police Chief Scott. According to his buddy Judge Delmont, you haven't got a case unless you can get your hands on his laptop."
I frowned. "Not his laptop. His file boxes. Everything we had was in cardboard boxes at his house. I was supposed to pick up a lot of it the morning before the hearing. Then I got to his house and the whole place was a crime scene, and nobody would let me in."
"I need in," I said.
"And I need to figure out who killed him, preferably in less than a week, and I can't do that if you're tromping all over my crime scene."
I groaned. "Come on," I said. "Don't you get it? We can help each other."
"I doubt that our interests line up precisely." Nash fingered the frosty base of his margarita glass thoughtfully. "What would you say if I told you his laptop was missing?"
"I'd say there's nothing on it worth stealing. He was low tech."
"Everything was in the file boxes?"
"How many were there?"
A little shiver went up my spine. "Were?" I said. "As in past tense?"
"There weren't any file boxes in the house."
"There had to be," I said. "Unless you're telling me somebody committed a brutal murder and carted out forty boxes of documents without any of the neighbors noticing."
"Yeah," I said.
Nash leaned back and scratched his neck. "I will admit that's unlikely."
"They're there," I said. "Maybe you just didn't know where to look." Schaeffer's house was full of hidden nooks and crannies. And I knew where at least one of them was-a little nugget of information Nash didn't seem to have. For the first time today, I felt like I was one step ahead of him.
"Maybe you can tell me what I missed," Nash said.
"Only if you let me in."
"Not gonna happen."
I sat abruptly back, exasperated. I had to get in. Some way, somehow. "Why not? I read detective novels! I watch Castle! I know I'm not supposed to touch anything! I will step where you step, touch only what you touch, et cetera and so forth. I swear."
"It would be a complete break of protocol."
"Sometimes you have to bend the rules," I said. "Sometimes it's just necessary."
Detective Nash narrowed his eyes. "It's never necessary," he said. "The rules are there for a reason."
"Give me a break," I said. "The people who have the money make the rules, which means the rules are not always in the interest of the greater good." This was a fact about which I had to thoroughly convince myself before deciding to go through with blackmailing Judge Delmont. Now that that deed was done, I refused to believe otherwise. And I would take anyone else I could get down that little mental path with me. Especially local law enforcement.
"Go on," Nash said.
"For example, did you know the oil refinery safety statutes which apply to refineries in the Houston area do not apply to the refinery in this town?"
"I did not know that."
"Well they don't, and here's why. There are only four-thousand people living in the shadow of our PetroPlex refinery, whereas in Houston and the surrounding areas, there are millions. The law dictates that more safety measures are required in places of higher population. In other words, the law says that the life of somebody who lives in Houston is more valuable than your life or mine. And all because some bigshot oil lobbyist funded some local representative's campaign in exchange for a vote to relax regulation in the area."
"You can't prove that."
"Maybe not, but it wouldn't shock me if Dr. Schaeffer could."
"So what you're saying is that it's okay to bend the rules in this case because PetroPlex bent them to start with?"
I took a deep breath. "It wouldn't be bending the rules. It would be returning to me what is mine. I'm saying I can help you in return. I'm saying we can help each other. Do you really feel like your life is worth less than that of someone who lives in Houston? Do you really believe your value is dictated by your geographic location? Help me show PetroPlex that your life matters, too."
Nash laughed-so not the reaction I was hoping for. "I can see how you'd be a threat in front of a jury. I'm not saying it's right. I'm saying that two wrongs don't make a right, so I can't break protocol and let you in. Meanwhile, if you have a problem with the current legislation, make sure you vote for someone who hasn't taken campaign contributions from Big Oil in the next election. That's how you right that wrong."
"Right," I said sarcastically. "Because it's that easy. Listen up, because I'm about to tell you how the system really works."
Nash raised his eyebrows.
"It's like this. Crude oil and gasoline contain dangerous hydrocarbons like benzene. The government has known that benzene causes cancer since about 1900, and the EPA has had it listed as a known human carcinogen for over thirty years. It is a Class A carcinogen, which is the most toxic designation the EPA hands out. It means we know benzene causes cancer. No ifs, ands, or buts about it."
"Okay," Nash said. "It's not like anybody thinks oil is actually healthy to be around. This is not news."
I ignored him and continued. "Benzene is so toxic that if you filled up one measuring cup and let it evaporate in a football stadium, ambient air levels would still be 3.3 times higher than the OSHA safe-air standard, and 6.6 times the NIOSH standard. Think about that for a minute. A single cup of benzene is enough to expose everyone in a football stadium to air that is six times more toxic than the legal limit. But a cup of benzene is nothing. Benzene is everywhere. This stuff is a natural part of crude oil and gasoline, and it's also found in all oil refinery waste products, which are rarely disposed of properly."
Our waiter arrived with the fajitas. I inhaled the scent of char-grilled bliss and stuffed my face with the meaty goodness.
"In fact," I said, not even caring that I was talking with my mouth full, "benzene makes up 1% of crude oil and accounts for up to 5% of gasoline vapors, which means you can also essentially poison everybody who is sitting in a football field with only six gallons of unsealed crude oil, or one and a half gallons of an uncorked bottle of gasoline. And yet, Corpus Christi, the U.S. City with more oil refineries than any other city except for Los Angeles, dumped seventy tons of benzene in 2007 alone. Seventy tons! That's way more than a single cup."
Nash's eyes went wide as he processed those numbers. Clearly this was news to him. "Seventy tons. . ." Nash's gaze went to the ceiling as he did some quick mental math. "That's. . . what? Almost 18,000 gallons, assuming a gallon of benzene is roughly equivalent to a gallon of water?"
"Or if you break that down even further into cups," I said, "enough to expose three-hundred-thousand football stadiums full of people to toxic air. Maybe my math is not perfect, but you get the idea. That's also the equivalent of benzene exposure you'd see in a twenty-nine million gallon oil spill, which would be almost three times the size of the Exxon Valdez. Data from the Texas Department of State Health Services reveals a birth defects rate in Corpus Christi that is 84% higher than the rest of the country. So if you're feeling romantic and want to settle down and have children, don't do it in Corpus Christi."
A strange look passed across Nash's face. I wondered briefly what his romantic ambitions might be, but I didn't dwell long on that thought. He was good looking, but what woman would ever be able to crack his shell?
"Meanwhile, our politicians allow this to happen. Both parties. They're both so beholden to Big Oil for campaign contributions they don't care who gets hurt. Everybody who lives in this town-and countless other towns just like this one-is exposed. A lot of people have died-including Gracie's husband. I work my butt off every day trying to hold these polluters accountable, and I get virtually no help. I'm asking you for help. Help me get justice for Gracie. Let me in to Schaeffer's house, and I'll help you get justice for Schaeffer."
Nash stared down at the table for a long moment, drumming his fingers on the polished wood surface. When he raised his eyes, he almost looked sad. "I'm sorry," he said. "I just can't. But if you really want to help me get justice for Schaeffer, you can tell me where you think he stashed all those files."
The fajitas I'd just inhaled felt like they had turned to rocks in my stomach. I snatched the napkin off my lap, wiped my hands on it, and tossed it on the table as I stood up. "I'm sorry," I said, putting all the ice I could muster into my voice. "I just can't. Dinner's over. Take me home."
Nash paid the bill, and we drove back to Kettle in silence.
The phone in Delmont's chambers rang.
It was about time. Delmont was sick of waiting around. Sick of waiting for a call that he shouldn't have had to wait for in the first place. Taylor and Nash must have really been talking it up. He was gonna be late for the poker game, at this rate. His wife had been nagging him to host one of their bi-weekly poker sessions at his house for years, and he'd never given in until tonight. If he showed up late, he'd never hear the end of it.
These losers had really screwed up. They couldn't have offed the guy at a worse time. Not only did it look bad in light of the docket schedule, they had to go and do it right when Nash was sure to be assigned to the case. Delmont knew Nash's history, and he knew Nash couldn't be bought off. If these screw-ups had consulted him first, as they had discussed, they wouldn't be in the pickle they were in now. Delmont would love to get his hands on the guy with the happy trigger finger.
He picked up the phone. "Talk to me."
"They're en route. Maybe five minutes."
Delmont slammed the phone down, not bothering to say "thanks" or "goodbye."
Immediately, he picked it back up and dialed another number.
The call connected. "Chief Scott," barked the voice on the other end.
Delmont said, "Five minutes. What's your status?"
Chief Scott hesitated. "I'm sorry. Best I can tell, she was squeaky clean before today."
Delmont swore. "Clear out. We're late for the game, anyway. My wife is gonna have my hide."
"You shouldn't have let her talk you into hosting in the first place."
"I know, but a man can only take so much nagging before he gives in."
"She's not gonna play, is she?"
"Course not. But I gotta warn you, she's been buying all kinds of ridiculous paraphernalia for weeks. Just put it on and humor her, all right?"
"All right, then."
The line went dead.
Anna Delmont looked at the clock for maybe the hundredth time that evening. Where the heck was her husband? Joe Bob always acted like he could hardly wait to get out the door and get to the poker games at Dick's house. He was never late to Dick's house. How come he'd be late to his own party? And why in tarnation wasn't he answering his phone?
She kept calling up to the courthouse, but all the staff had gone home by now. Maybe she ought to go up there and drag him out of his chambers with her own two hands. But what if the other guests arrived while she was gone and there was no one here to greet them when they finally got here?
Anna paced back and forth across the living room, wringing her hands. She took a detour to the window, hoping to see someone approaching the house, but there was no one there. She sighed. Had she gone to all this trouble for nothing?
She'd spent weeks picking out all the decorations. Joe Bob had never, ever let her come within a mile of one of his "guy's night outs" before, and she was dying of curiosity to see what happened during all these poker games. She wanted everything to be perfect. She wanted all the boys to want to come back.
She'd set out the green felt-top table and bought everyone buttons to pin to their shirt. They were battery-operated gadgets with red flashing lights that said stuff like "High Roller" and "Pit Boss." She'd also put up seventies-style beaded curtains all around the room, except they were made of strings of various sizes of red dice instead of beads. She'd also bought everyone their very own pair of green suspenders covered in diamonds, hearts, clubs, and spades, and matching green transparent visors to match. Mylar balloons decorated with cards and dice were tied to the back of every player's chair, and she'd set up a real fancy slot machine centerpiece on the green felt table to spruce it up. Everything was looking mighty fine. Joe Bob was sure to be proud of her handiwork.
Her doorbell rang, playing the melody to Stars and Stripes Forever. Her interchangeable custom chimes were the envy of all the women in the neighborhood.
She plastered on a big, welcoming smile and threw the door wide. A little man with a big cigar in his mouth stood at her entryway, puffing foul smoke into the house. It was Dick Richardson, who she knew through Joe Bob, of course-but even if she hadn't, she couldn't have failed to recognize him from his obnoxious television commercials. Anna didn't want to let him in with the cigar, but she didn't want to be rude either, especially since this was her very first poker party. Her dismay must have shown on her face.
"What? No smoking in the house?" Dick asked.
"Well. . ." Anna said.
Dick took a long drag from the cigar, dropped it on her custom welcome mat, and ground it out with his foot. "Don't worry about it," Dick said. "Long as you got Jack and Coke in the house, everything'll be fine."
Anna eyed the ruined mat. Well, it wasn't like she couldn't get another one. Joe Bob always gave her plenty of spending money. And who could expect men to really pay attention to niceties like welcome mats, anyway? Men would be men.
Dick strode past her into the room and eyed the set-up. He let out a low whistle. "Wow," he said. "You sure got the place done up."
Anna beamed with pride. "You like it?"
"It's. . . something else," Dick said.
Anna couldn't help but notice the look of astonishment on his face as he took in the balloons, pins, dice curtains, and centerpiece. That wow-factor had been exactly what she'd been going for. She felt herself warming up to Dick in spite of the whole cigar incident.
"Don't tell me I'm the first one here," Dick said.
"You are. For the life of me, I can't account for everyone else. Sit down. Let me get you a drink."
She bustled into the kitchen to pour him a Jack and Coke. She had tried to bake a spade-shaped cake, but the darn thing had burned, so there were no refreshments other than the booze.
She returned to present Dick with his drink when her doorbell chimed again.
This time it was old Judge Hooper, the town's criminal court judge. Judge Hooper was a nice, elderly man with a kind grin who walked with a cane. He didn't show up on her doorstep with a cigar. No siree. She ushered him in and he patted her on the back kindly.
"How you doing, little lady?" he asked, and looked around. "My goodness. Ain't you just gone all out!"
"Nothing but the best for you," Anna said, smiling. Really, she ought to host poker games more often. She couldn't understand why Joe Bob had always seemed so against it.
Right then, she heard Joe Bob slam through the back door. He stomped into the living room and stopped short.
"I'll be darned. It's worse than I thought," he said.
Anna's face fell.
"What the. . ." Joe Bob muttered as he strode toward the felt-top table. "Why you got a slot machine in the middle of our playing area? What's the matter with you, woman?"
She'd just wanted to break up all that empty green space. And after all, every good party table had a centerpiece.
"As long as real money comes out of it, I like it," Dick said.
"Yeah, I've never seen you turn down a buck." Joe Bob picked up the slot machine and dropped it unceremoniously on the sofa, then turned to Anna. "Where's the snacks?"
Anna's heart started beating rapidly, her lower lip threatened to start trembling, and her eyelids started to sting. She didn't want to admit she'd burned the cake in front of all of Joe Bob's friends. "I was expecting you to be more thirsty than hungry at this hour," she said. "I restocked the whole bar. Can I get you a drink?"
"Don't tell me you burned the cake?" Joe Bob said.
"Never mind," Judge Hooper said. "I already had dinner."
"Me too," Dick chimed in.
"Well I ain't," Joe Bob said. "Anna, you run on out and get us a pizza, all right?"
"All right," she said.
She left just as Police Chief Scott, Mayor Fillion, and a couple of other men were arriving.
Once inside the safety and relative privacy of her car and surrounded by the open road, she let a few tears fall from her eyes. Just a few. It wouldn't be a good idea to indulge in unseemly emotions out in public.
Of course Joe Bob wasn't the perfect husband. But he had always given her so much-he always made sure she had the best dresses and the best house in the neighborhood, and he was always sending her into Houston for overnight spa vacations and shopping trips. All the other neighborhood ladies were so jealous. So if she didn't often receive the affection from him she felt like she needed, she couldn't really complain. After all, he was a man, and she couldn't blame him for bottling up his feminine side.
Really, she figured she had done pretty well snagging Joe Bob. It was too much to expect to find an absolutely perfect man. They just didn't exist. She and Joe Bob had been married and faithful to each other for over 30 years, ever since she was crowned the Kettle beauty queen her senior year in high school. Sure, maybe she sometimes longed for a man with a softer side, but she and Joe Bob had such a solid history, and she would never throw that away or betray his trust. Even if he sometimes hurt her feelings, her eye had never really strayed. She loved Joe Bob, and Joe Bob only, and she was sure he felt the same way about her.
All that notwithstanding, she'd have some strong words for him after all the guests left tonight. He'd been late to an event he knew she'd been planning and looking forward to for ages, and then he'd embarrassed her in front of his friends. That would never do.
Nash walked me to my front door. I was unclear on the protocol. I knew it hadn't been a date, but he was hovering awfully close. I thought maybe he might even lean in for a hug, if not a kiss, but given the fact that I knew I was about to break the law for the second time that day, I stepped back.
"Well," he said. "Thank you for a lovely evening."
"No, thank you," I said. "For nothing." Nash had frustrated me to no end. It was hard on my already bruised ego. It made me feel like being rude. Not the best way to be, I'll admit, but I hated feeling like an ineffective, pansy pushover.
"Nothing?" Nash ran his hands through his hair in a way that might have seemed self-conscious, if it were possible for Nash to feel such an emotion. "How about for dinner? If it weren't for me, you'd be eating Ramen."
"A temporary inconvenience," I said.
"I have no doubt."
He lingered. I could hear Lucy scratching at the door, impatient for me to come inside.
"Have a good night," I said, shifting my weight back and forth on my feet uncomfortably.
We shook hands, and he left.
When I went inside, Lucy seemed unusually perturbed. She was always excited for me to come home, but tonight, she seemed more hyper than usual. She danced around, eyes bulging, tongue lolling out. She was shaking, kind of like she does when a big thunderstorm rolls through town, or when a stranger invades her territory.
Alarmed, I looked around, but nothing seemed to be out of place.
I scooped her up to soothe her. "Whatsamatter?" I asked. "Did the big, bad detective scare you? It's okay, baby. He's a nice detective. But between you and me, he's a little anal."
Lucy wagged her tail slightly, but continued to shake.
"Honeypie!" I said. "It's okay! What's wrong?"
If only dogs could talk. No matter how much I stroked and soothed her, she wouldn't calm down. I couldn't leave her like this, and I knew I had to leave immediately. Or at least once Nash was good and gone.
"Ride in the car?" I asked. She perked up. Those were the magic words. "Yeah! Momma will take you for a ride in the car!"
Lucy loved to ride in the car. One time I had taken her on a car trip to Florida-a thirteen hour drive. When we got there, I was exhausted, and so was she. As a joke, after I unpacked, I asked her if she wanted to ride in the car again. She hopped back in, ready to go. I had to forcibly pull her out and bring her inside.
She leapt out of my arms and pranced in circles in front of the door.
"Ride in the car?" I cooed again. She bucked like an impatient horse.
I fished around in my purse for my car keys.
I debated about whether or not to call Miles. The bottom line was, I needed Schaeffer's files. While I knew Miles would love to get his hands on them, his livelihood wasn't on the line like mine was. Right now, Miles just flat out had more options in life than I did. And if I was about to break into a crime scene illegally and disturb the evidence, why should I involve him? If I called and asked, I knew he would come even if he didn't want to. But if I didn't call him and I got caught, Miles would have complete deniability.
I decided that Lucy would be a perfectly good lookout.
I glanced out the window to make sure Nash was long gone. I didn't see any trace of him. Just to be on the safe side, I waited another five minutes before loading Lucy into the car and heading to Schaeffer's place. I used the time to do a quick and dirty Internet search on how to pick locks with credit cards. Schaeffer, who had been extremely paranoid in life, had about five on every door. It was going to be interesting trying to get in. For good measure, I also dropped a small hammer in my purse, in case I had to break a window-but that would be my last resort.
After sending the lock-picking information to my iPhone and double-checking my credit card count, I hit the road. If I ruined a couple cards in the process, no biggie. They had no credit left on them that I could use, after all. I was completely maxed out.
Schaeffer's house was an old 1950s ranch-style house with beige brick, a low-pitch roof, and small windows. It was his second house, which he'd had custom built to keep him comfortable while he was doing research here in town. Seeing as how he charged seven hundred dollars an hour, he could afford it.
The exterior was pitch black. The crime scene tape glinted yellow only in the gleam of my headlights. Everything else was dark. I drove past the house a few times to make sure everything was quiet. If any of the neighbors happened to be window-gazing tonight, I would surely appear suspicious. But somehow, "casing the joint" made me feel a little better about what I was about to do.
But what did I know?
Only what I'd seen on TV, that's what. And of course, what I'd just learned on the Internet. Ahh, the Internet. How did anyone ever live without it?
I shut off my lights, pulled the car around back, and parked in the shadow of a fence. I cracked the windows for Lucy and got out of the car. Ordinarily, I would never leave my dog in the car on a summer day, but the evening was cooling off significantly. I estimated the temperature was now back down into the eighties, and there was a nice breeze blowing. I knew Lucy could handle that.
"Good dog," I said, leaning in to pet her. "Stay right here and guard the house, okay?"
She wagged her tail. Her eyes widened in slight confusion, but she didn't make a sound as I crept away.
I felt certain that if anyone came around, she would bark and warn me.
After pulling on a pair of latex gloves, I crept slowly toward the back door and listened.
Nothing. No sounds. No light. No nothing. Good.
I slid one of the credit cards into the crack in the door and ran it down. Only one of the five locks was locked! I had totally lucked out. Obviously the local police weren't nearly as paranoid as Schaeffer. I wasn't surprised. It was such a small town that most of the residents never even used their locks at all. Some of them even left their keys in the car. There wasn't a lot of property crime in this town, and there usually wasn't much violent crime either, although there had been a slight uptick in stats lately, which had resulted in the hiring of some new police-Nash among them.
Best of all for me, the lock the police had chosen to fasten wasn't a deadbolt. It was a plain-old key in the doorknob contraption-the kind that was so easy to break into you might as well not even have installed it on the door in the first place.
I held my tiny, high-intensity flashlight in my teeth, glancing around furtively, working the credit card until the door was open.
I carried my light low, trying to make sure the beam stayed well below the window sill line and closed blinds as I came to them, shutting my tiny light off from the outside world.
A thrill of excitement vibrated through my core. I had never, ever done anything like this before. I felt high, lifted into the air on wings of pure adrenaline. Part of me wanted to never feel this way again. The other part of me wanted to feel this way every day of my life, from today henceforth to ever after.
I stepped slowly, one foot in front of the other, careful not to disturb anything on the floor.
The body had long since been removed to the Rosethorn morgue. But flicking my flashlight around, I happened upon a small pool of blood in the living room. I shivered, one part nauseated, one part . . . I don't know what.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw light.
Headlights blazed in severe, horizontal lines through the blinds.
A car drove past the house slowly. More slowly than necessary, it seemed.
I might have been imagining things, but I felt tailed. Watched. Like I didn't have a lot of time. But no one could possibly know I was here. Could they?
I made my way through the house, looking for document boxes, but not expecting to find them right away. They wouldn't be anywhere obvious, or Nash would have found them already.
I crept into Schaeffer's office, which really looked more like an old European-style study. You'd never guess the interior of the house looked this way judging from the outside. After pulling all the blinds tight, I clicked on the light. I bypassed a grandfather clock, an entire wall of bookshelves, a shiny black grand piano, some parlor chairs, and a sofa, heading straight toward his middle desk drawer. Schaeffer had mentioned once that it had a false bottom, which was a little tidbit of information I'd decided to keep from Detective Nash. If he were thorough, he may have already found it. But if not. . .
The drawer was full of the usual desk knick-knacks. Paperclips, pens, pencils, rubber bands. A stray business card or two. I pulled the whole thing completely off its rails and dumped it upside-down on the rug.
Everything fell out-including the false bottom.
And an envelope.
With my name on it.
The false bottom was only a few millimeters deep, which is probably why Nash hadn't noticed it.
Feeling as though my illegal expedition had somehow just been validated, I snagged a letter opener from the pile of stuff on the floor and slit the missive open.
Inside was a single sheet of paper.
Another car drove past the house on the street outside. Faster than the first one, perhaps?
I froze and watched the lights fade away.
Once they were gone, I examined the sheet of paper. A literal letter from the grave.
In handwritten block print, Dr. Schaeffer had written: "The end of time."
That was all.
What on earth? I had risked my livelihood and broken the law for this? For this? A cryptic message that meant nothing?
Time. Time. I racked my brains, trying to think of any discussions we'd ever had about time.
We weren't rocket scientists or quantum theorists, for crying out loud. When had we ever discussed time?
We did know filing this case meant we were in it for the long haul. We knew we weren't up for a quick win. So the end of time meant. . . what?
The literal end of time? Surely not.
I flicked my flashlight around the room, stopping at the grandfather clock. I rushed over to it, opening its cabinet and poking around.
I found nothing.
I went back to the desk and went through the drawers. I found a pocket watch and opened it up. Nothing. I grabbed a pair of scissors and pried open the case. The thing fell apart. Still nothing, except a freshly ruined watch.
Frantic, I rushed to the bedroom, examining his watch case, his bedside clock, anything related to time.
Frustrated, I went back to the office and stared at the note once more, silently willing it to tell me its secrets. There was nothing else on it except for the bare block print. I even shined the flashlight on it, looking for watermarks or smudges or anything else except the uninformative words neatly printed in black ink.
I sat in Schaeffer's desk chair, debating about whether or not to turn on the light. Maybe if I could see properly, something else would come to mind.
I decided against it, but flicked the flashlight around the room, hoping something would stand out.
A gleam of red caught my eye.
Yes! Not time, but TIME with a capital T! As in, the magazine! An entire row of Time magazines filled the second bookshelf down on the south wall. It was not an external wall. This wall backed up to the bedroom, if I was not mistaken.
I stepped out into the hall and peered into the bedroom, trying to gauge the distance between the door and the wall that divided the bedroom from the office.
It was dark. But either it was my imagination, or there was a slight discrepancy in the distance to the end of the room and the distance down the hallway to the office.
Could the boxes be in a chamber be behind the shelves somehow? But if so, where was the switch? These shelves felt like they were miles long. They covered the entire length of the wall, which was not insubstantial. The house itself, being ranch style, was unusually long to start with. The trigger could be anywhere, assuming there was a trigger at all. It would take me all night to empty the shelves. There had to be a better way. Think! I told myself. Brains over brawn. The only way a girl could survive.
In the distance, I heard a dog bark. But it wasn't Lucy, so I figured I was still okay.
I checked the windows again, and seeing no car lights, I crept back to the office and went back to the magazines. They were organized by date, the earlier ones to the left and the most recent ones to the right. I pulled out the last chunk of magazines-the ones to the far right. The "end of Time." When I stuck my hand into the bookshelf, I felt nothing out of the ordinary.
I pressed the back wall.
I pressed in various other places.
Plopping onto the floor, I propped up my light and paged through each of the magazines, hoping to find a dog-eared page, a piece of paper. Something. Just something.
Finding nothing, I started to work my way backwards through all of the magazines, pressing in various places on the shelf, paging through each copy. I worked my way all the way through the very first issue of the magazine on the shelf-the January 1991 copy-before I finally admitted to myself that I had reached a dead end.
I scrupulously replaced all of the magazines in the correct order.
As I bent down to pick up the last magazine, I noticed an old copy of a family Bible crammed into the corner of the bottom shelf. Unlike all the other books around it, it wasn't covered in dust.
Surely not. But there it was. Revelation, I wondered? A book about the literal end of time?
I pulled out the old Bible and flipped to the last page of Revelation. Tucked inside was a small scrap of paper that read: "A Scandal in Bohemia."
Was he kidding? Sending me on a goose chase like this just for the files that were already mine?
It was a good thing I happened to be familiar with the reference. I took the clue and ran my flashlight over the bookshelves until I found a volume of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I flipped it open and found the short story titled "A Scandal in Bohemia," which featured Irene Adler, the only woman to outwit Sherlock Holmes. I riffled through it. Nothing. I crossed my fingers, replaced the book on the shelf, and pressed it firmly in.
A clicking noise shattered my blanket of suburban silence, and I jumped.
Realizing that I, myself, had caused the sound, I blew out a sigh and relaxed. Feeling along the wall, I found the uneven space where the bookshelf had popped away from the wall.
Pulling it back, I shined my flashlight into the newly revealed space.
One, two three. . . thirty boxes of files.
Ten boxes were missing.
Someone had been here.
And yet, the envelope with my name on it in the desk had been sealed. How could anyone else have known?
Visions of men in black going all Jack Bauer on Dr. Schaeffer flashed through my mind. Had he been tortured? Had he died a slow death?
I thought about that for a second, and then wished I hadn't.
A high-pitched bark ripped my attention away from horrifying past and future possibilities into the even more horrifying present.
It was Lucy. Her bark was not one of idle boredom, or a mere shout-out to the neighborhood dogs barking in the distance. Its pitch was the one she reserved for neighbors trespassing on her sidewalk, or the mailman delivering the mail.
Someone was here.
I hastily pressed the bookshelf back into the wall, dumped everything back into the desk drawer, and slid it shut. Then I grabbed the envelope and piece of paper addressed to me. Confident I had left everything else as I found it, I ran to the back door, locked the doorknob lock from the inside, and slipped out.
Lucy had stopped barking. She must have scared away whoever was here.
I debated about whether or not to go back inside. Was it worth the risk of leaving and possibly losing the files? Or staying and risking the loss of something even worse. . . like my life?
Okay, reality check. Maybe somebody bad had been out to get Schaeffer, but I didn't know anything worth killing over. Deep breath. The worst that could happen is that I might get caught breaking and entering, and then I'd just have to lawyer myself out of jail. No biggie. I could do that in my sleep. But it would take time, and that was a luxury I really didn't have.
I decided to leave and come back later. I would park farther away and watch the house from a distance to make sure no one was there.
I left through the same door I'd come in, locking it again behind me. Then I slid into the driver's seat of my car. Lucy hopped into my lap and started licking my face madly.
"Good dog," I whispered. "You told 'em, didn't you?"
I didn't wait for her to settle down before sliding the key into the ignition and starting the car.I twisted my wrist with maximum force and jerked the car into reverse, pressing down on the gas pedal as hard as I dared.
In a few moments, I was out of the driveway and humming down the street.
Even though I kept manically checking my rearview mirrors, I saw no one. I took the long route home, driving through three different neighborhoods, out to the river and back before I satisfied myself that I wasn't being followed.
When I got home, Detective Nash was waiting for me on my doorstep. Oy.
... continued ...