a mystery novel by Ann Lynes
I pinned him with a slight smile. "Nothing, thank you." I turned the knob to the door marked, "Curzon Vincent, PC." Inside, I found a large oak-wood desk with a large man--his gray hair receding with sapphire eyes that brightened at the sight of me. He straightened his black jacket and his white dress shirt, checking his gold Rolex watch. In front of the desk sat J.D. in a wooden, high-back chair. A cold breeze brushed me as I stepped into the room.
The older man stood up and extended his hand. "I have reviewed your case." When I didn't shake his hand, he sat back down, steepling his fingers. "I understand you were accused of murder eight years ago."
"I wasn't charged because I killed my husband in self-defense." I sat down next to J.D., briefly giving him a glance. "I shot my husband when he tried to kill me with a knife."
"Where did you get the gun?" Studied me intently, he continued, "Did you buy it?"
I wrinkled my brow, wringing my hands. "My brother bought it for me. He made me register it as well as take shooting classes."
"What kind of gun?"
"A Smith and Wesson Model 65LS Ladysmith. A .357 magnum, six shot." I was pleased with my recitation.
He didn't seem to think it was so good. "A similar weapon was found at Doctor Schmitz's shooting."
"If that's the basis on which they arrested me, they have no case." I stared at him, relaxing a little. "My gun was confiscated and marked as evidence eight years ago." I felt the heat of Vincent's eyes on me. "I assumed the police had it melted-down or sold it at a police auction."
"I know." Vincent rubbed his chin. "It was sold at a police auction to an Eleanor Springer. Upon Springer's death, it was sold to one Clayton Walker."
My jaw dropped.
Curzon, being the ever-observant lawyer queried, "I take it you know him?"
I was silent for a moment. "He's my assistant."
"What reason would he have to kill Doctor Schwartz?"
"I don't know." I shook my head. "Unless he found out about--"
Vincent took his pipe from the ashtray on his desk, filling the pipe with tobacco. "I understand Schwartz was arrested on charges of child pornography. Anyone would want to kill him. Any of his clients." He lit the pipe. "Or someone he may have wronged."
Like me? He stared at me, almost as if he was trying to read my mind. His eyes were unreadable. I couldn't tell if he thought I was guilty or not. I turned to J.D., who held out his hand. I grabbed his outstretched hand as a warm sensation zipped through my body. "Do you think you can help me?"
"Definitely." His lips turned into a smile. "I'll talk to the Police Department to obtain the reports concerning the sale of the weapon." His face fell. "I should have asked this sooner. Where were you when Doctor Schwartz was shot?"
"Having lunch with me at Spinners' cafe," J.D. piped up finally.
"You'll also need the answering machine recordings of Richard's panicked messages."
"If you get that to me by tomorrow morning," Vincent began, writing notes on a yellow legal pad. "I'll talk to the DA about dropping the case." He stood up, extending his hand. Maybe he thought I was too nervous to shake his hand the first time. "It was nice to meet you, Ms. Martin." Turning his hand toward J.D., he shook J.D.'s hand.
J.D. and I joined him on our feet. As we walked out of his office, J.D. faced me in the hallway. "Everything's going to be all right."
I had trusted J.D. I cursed myself for becoming comfortable enough to trust him.
* * * * *
A strong knock came upon the back door. I rushed to open it, putting down my cup of coffee. I had left a message on the Agency's answering machine, telling Clayton I needed him to drop by my house. That it was important.
When I peeked out the window, I saw a tall man, his blond hair was thinning on the sides and long in the back, his eyes--the color of a brown sugar. His rock hard features looked as if they could have been carved into a mountain. His oval face, long nose, a strong jawline.
Opening the door, I feigned a smile and invited him in. "Would you like something to drink?" He shook his head. "What's this all about?" He stepped into the house.
"I went to the attorney's office yesterday morning."
He leaned his palm against the wall that separated the kitchen from the back door foyer. "I am sorry to hear about your arrest, but what does that have to do with me?"
I slouched against the wall myself, taking a deep breath. How was I suppose to broach the subject? I didn't want to come right out and accuse Clayton of shooting Richard. "I killed my husband in self-defense. After the weapon was confiscated for evidence and the charges were dismissed, the weapon was sold at a police auction to Eleanor Springer. When she died, it was sold to," I paused; my mouth curved, "Clayton Walker."
His eyes grew wide. "It's got to be mistake."
I stared at him, studying his movements. His forehead crinkled. Terror masked his eyes. I replied, "I am just looking for the truth."
"I am telling you the truth. I didn't buy a gun, nor did I shoot Doctor Schwartz." His voice rising.
He tended to be aggressive and strong-willed. That's why I hand- picked him out of the American Express Travel School class of Spring 1988. He has second in his class, but he wasn't afraid to speak his mind or challenge the teacher. He did his homework thoroughly. I sat in on several classes, to assess his abilities. He had never lied to me. I had learned to believe him and trust him no matter what the situation. "Do you have any enemies?" My eyes opened wide, realizing Clayton may have been framed too.
"A few," he admitted after a few strained moments. "I've been threatened by your ex-fiance, and now your boyfriend." He stood up straight. "People sure are protective of you."
I smiled. I felt the warmth on my cheeks. I could imagine how red they were. "I've had a tough life." I ran my fingers through my hair. "J.D. is not my boyfriend."
I could tell he didn't believe me. I wasn't sure I believed it myself. I walked into the living room, motioning him to follow. "Anyway, Richard is the victim, and J.D. was with me."
"And I was running your travel agency."
I made a mental note to check with the other employees to confirm Clayton had nothing to do with the attempted murder. After all, how well did I really know this man? He worked efficiently for me for years, but we never talked about anything personal.
I knew he wasn't married and never had been, but we never socialized outside of business. "Of course." I said slowly through gritted teeth.
He sat at the edge of the recliner, smiling, showing the right amount of teeth. "What about you? Do you have any enemies?"
Thinking about that a moment, I strained to recall anyone who would frame me. No names springed to mind. A disgruntled customer, maybe? An upset ex-employee? Possibly Kenneth's family looking for revenge? "I suppose so." I looked up at him from my seat on the love seat. "Any person who might want revenge against Martin Travel or me, in general." I prided myself on being a nice, polite person, but even the nicest of people had customers who didn't like them.
He studied my face a moment. "I am an excellent office manager, and I have worked for you for years." He gripped the armrest. "Why don't I have my own branch to manage?" He looked at her intently.
"I was waiting for the finalization of the sixth branch. I wanted to make sure you were extremely trained and had enough experience." I noticed the scowl on his face. "If you recall, my other branch managers have at least ten years of experience at other agencies." I smiled. "You have the least experience of any of my managers but will be the one I never have to worry about."
He twisted his mouth. "Unless I turn out to be Richard's shooter." He looked down before continuing his stare. "Seriously, Cassandra, I never bought a gun and will never own one." He took a deep breath. I knew he had something important to add by the way he was cracking his knuckles. "When I was twelve, I found my dad's gun in his nightstand drawer. I knew a lot about guns. After all, my dad took me shooting every weekend since I was five." His hands were visibly shaking. "Tess-my younger sister--and I were going to pretend we were bounty hunters on a spree." His blinking became more rapid, possibly holding back tears. "The gun accidently went off, shooting Tess."
My heart sank into my shoes. "Did she...," I managed to whisper. My own breathing--shallow, and my own hands--shaking.
"No, Tess had been shot in the leg. She recovered with a slight limp." He put his hands together. "That's when I vowed never to use guns."
"Very understandable under the circumstances," I agreed, trying bringing my breathing and heart rate back to normal. "Clayton, I am so sorry. I didn't know--"
He frowned. "Of course, you didn't." He rose to his feet, rubbing his hands and shrugged his shoulders. Did he regret telling me?
"Mark my words, Clayton. I will catch the person responsible for Richard's shooting, who put me in jail, and is the person framing you."
He headed for the door, then turned back to me. "If anyone had reason to kill him, it would have been you." He twisted the doorknob. "God only knows why you didn't." The door slammed behind him.
I sat alone in my living room, reflecting on the conversation with Clayton. If he didn't shoot Richard, who did that leave? I was back to square one.
Suddenly, the phone rang. As I greeted the caller, a rough voice said, "Ms. Martin, this is Curzon Vincent. I'd like to see you in my office immediately." The phone went dead in my hands.
* * * * *
"Do you know what Vincent wants to see you about?," J.D. asked, meeting me at the corner of the hall that led to Vincent's officer.
As I headed down the corridor, I shook my head. "I told you everything I knew when I called you an hour ago." We moved toward the office. J.D. held the door open for me. A sweet but unnecessary gesture. Once inside, the secretary pushed us past the waiting area and into Vincent's office. "He's been expecting you."
We sat down in front of Vincent's empty desk. Vincent stood in front of a large picture window, peering out. Frowns scarred our faces.
"Don't look so glum, Ms. Martin. I have good news for you." He turned around to face me, moving back toward his desk. "The DA has reviewed your case. He has heard the answering machine tapes, seen the bill of sales on the gun, and talked to the waitresses at the Spinners' cafe." Vincent sat down. "He has dropped the charges against you, Ms. Martin."
I grinned, beaming from ear to ear. J.D. and I exchanged glances glances, then spontaneously hugged. When we realized we had our arms around each other, we instantly parted. An adrenalin rush coursed through my veins like blood.
"Now I'd advise you not to leave the country." Vincent folded his hands. "I need you to sign the paperwork involved with dropping the charges." He pointed to the documents in front of me.
"What does this mean to Richard's shooter?"
Vincent was silent for a moment. "I can't say that the actual culprit will ever be caught." He rubbed his chin gingerly. "I know the Police will do their best to investigate anyone who had any reason to shoot Doctor Schwartz."
I added silently, I will find the culprit myself if the Police fail. I know taking matters into my own hands would be dangerous, but this was I had to do. I had vowed to Clayton and myself to make sure justice prevailed. "I'm sure they will." I smiled, briefly studying J.D.
His blue eyes flickered with sheer delight almost as if he was as happy as I was to be cleared of the charges. I touched his hand. "You've done it again, Vincent." J.D. laughed. "I knew I could count on you."
"My pleasure." We rose to our feet again. This time Vincent only extend his hand to J.D. Turning to me, he patted my shoulder. "Please don't go play private investigator and end up six feet under in the name of justice. It isn't worth it."
He didn't realize it, but his statement only strengthened my resolve. Nothing like an advice-giver to make a person do the exact opposite.
It wasn't until we were back in the hallway did I notice J.D.'s hand was engulfing my own. When J.D. sensed my uneasy staring at our entangled hands, he retracted his. "I'm sorry." We walked up the hallway a few feet before I heard him mutter something that resembled, "We've got to talk."
About what?, I thought. Something told me what he wanted to discuss was important to him. The whole situation probably looked crystal clear in his eyes, but, to me, it was hazy and dark. "Then talk to me."
He stopped, turning to face me. I stood motionless. "You have to stop denying you have feelings for me."
My lips formed a frown. He was right. Right from the beginning I knew I was in trouble. I knew I would trust him. I knew I would fall in love with him. I hated to admit it, but I think I already had. I'd be damned, though, if I'd admit it to J.D., at least not right now. I had to concentrate on catching an attempted murderer.
He was staring at me, anticipating an answer. I bet. His expression--sad and brooding. "Do you have any feelings for me?," he demanded. Her eyes has a hint of hurt to them. I felt my throat clenched.
"Yes, but like I've told you, I am not ready for a relationship." I gritted my teeth. My fingers crossed behind my back. I hated lying to him, but there was no alternative. I couldn't waver my concentration by beginning a relationship with J.D.
His face fell. "Give me a break," he whispered, grabbing my shoulders with his hands. "If you think I'm stupid enough to buy that, you aren't as intelligent as I gave you credit for."
"You're totally wrong for me, you know." I gave a slight chuckle. "Let me take you out to dinner, and we will discuss how I am not ready for another relationship." Talking it over couldn't hurt. His face softened, and one look into his smoky blue eyes told me I was in too deep. There was no turning back. I braced myself before I slid into another relationship, heart first.
* * * * *
Quentin sat on the edge of the bricks that surrounded my rose garden when I came up the walkway. His long blond hair still had gentle waves in it as it was pulled back into a ponytail. The hair had no signs of balding or graying. He was dressed in a pair of jeans and a navy blue sweatshirt. Both of which he had probably worn all week in between his daily showers. A gray bomber jacket covered the sweatshirt. His lips turned to a smile when he saw me. He stood up. "Cassandra, it is so good to see you." He swallowed me in a bear hug that lasted longer than a friendly hug should have. "I just flew in from New Orleans."
"I heard you were painting in the French Quarter. Heard you have your paintings hanging on several museum walls."
He nodded. "I'm moving back."
I unlocked the door and invited him in. I was amazed that years apart only served to trample any feelings I had once felt for this man. I couldn't even figure out what had attracted me to him. "Graham and April got married."
"I know. I didn't attend the wedding," he replied, sitting down on the love seat; his gray backpack flung over his shoulder. "I thought it might be awkward for April." He smiled. "She and I had an affair when her and Graham were broken up."
I sank into the recliner, pushing the footstool out. "A one-night stand in high school, for Heaven's sake." I scrutinized him for a moment. He looked as boyish as he did back then. And acted pretty much like Peter Pan--a boy who never grew up. "Quentin, what do you want?"
He appeared shocked. "Is that any way to greet an old friend?" He set his backpack on the floor. "You look beautiful, Cassie."
"Cut the bull. I'm starting a new relationship." J.D. had convinced me to give the relationship one shot and that as a team, we could cover more ground on Richard's shooter.
Quentin glanced around the room. "Okay, here's the deal. I haven't sold a painting in over a year. At first, I thought I was having a bad case of painter's block." He edged closer. "I am homeless, jobless, and penniless. I spent all my money to come home."
"In other words, you need a home and a job, right?"
He gave me a wry smile.
"I will put you up in a nearby hotel. The owner is a friend of mine." I sighed. I'd probably regret this. I guess, I still had a soft spot in my heart for him. After all, he use to sit in the Student Union of Glendale Community College--about a forty-five minute drive from where I lived now--drawing the X-Men, Phantom, and other comic book characters. He'd skip classes to sit there and doodle. He used to hand them out in what I termed the "Outsiders" group.
In the group was a prematurely balding, overweight guy who looked like a human teddy bear and had a heart to match, an Italian Denis Leary type, a rough-looking guy with scraggly blond hair and his clothes always looked dingy and holey because he was poor, a woman who was intelligent enough to converse on any subject but annoyed people because she was loud, obnoxious, and flirty, and then there was me.
"I am opening up a new branch of Martin's Travel and will need a mural--something romantic-looking. I'll pay you to paint it, and if you do well, I can get you work painting pictures for hotels and my other branches," I continued, "The hotel expenses will come out of your paychecks."
Quentin ran over to me and threw his arms around my neck. I pushed him away. "Hey, now, none of that."
"I knew I could count on you," he exclaimed, pulling back from me. "I wasn't sure about coming here. I haven't seen you since you stood me up at the altar."
I felt the heat rise to my cheeks. "I was young and scared." I hurried to gather my belongings. "Lets go get you settled in before it gets too dark."
He studied me before reluctantly following me out the door.
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Chapter Six · Chapter Seven · Chapter Eight · Chapter Nine · Chapter Ten
Chapter Eleven · Chapter Twelve · Chapter Thirteen
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