Jessica Maltona’s boyfriend, Jason Jaffe, was exactly the piece of work Gretchen had said he was. He even looked the part with disreputable jeans and a wife-beater T-shirt. He was an artist who worked with metal and a welding machine and Gretchen and Nine found him hard at work in the garage of the small home he shared with Jessica, a blue flame spurting from his hand-held welder, melting metal into a bubbling liquid at the joint of something that looked like a large ball with rebar spikes that now looped down like limp spider’s legs.
Such was September’s appreciation of Jaffe’s art.
He looked up at their approach through his welder’s helmet; his eyes visible behind black mesh, the rest of his face hidden. Switching off the torch, he flipped up the helmet. He was good-looking in that lean, rawhide way with deep grooves beside his mouth and flinty eyes.
“Who the fuck are you?” he greeted them.
“We’ve spoken,” Gretchen said, whipping out her ID and getting bristly.
As soon as he realized who they were he visibly pulled on a mask of geniality. September introduced herself and then explained a little about the general investigation, and their visit to the hospital to see Jessica.
“She’s not doin’ so well, huh,” he said blithely.
Gretchen’s eyes narrowed at his callous tone, but September sensed it might be a cover-up. She wasn’t in love with the guy, but he might have a lot of feelings buried down deep that he wasn’t willing to let them see.
“Tell us a little bit about her,” she suggested.
“How long have you and she been living here? How did you meet? Like that.”
He paused for a long moment, then took off the helmet and flexed his arms and back. Hunks of metal surrounded him in disorderly bins and a wooden workbench with scattered tools stood against the back wall.
“We met in a bar. I liked the way she looked. I guess she felt the same. I was doing some landscaping for Lawn Like New. Asshole boss. Asshole company. She was workin’ for that Zuma guy and makin’ more money than I was. We started renting and then the bastard fired me and Jessica said maybe it was meant to be. We could squeak by on her salary for a while, and this way, I got to work on my sculptures full time.”
Gretchen just stood back; she’d heard enough bullshit in her life to be bored or irritated or both. She was itching to get on to something new.
September said, “Any thoughts on why someone might have it in for Jessica?”
His flinty eyes gazed at her as if she’d lost her mind. “Hell, no. Everybody loves Jess. She’s nice.” He slid a look Gretchen’s way as if making a point. “You gotta get your head outta your asses. This ain’t about Jess. This is about that asshole Kurt Upjohn. He’s the asshole. Makes tons of cash and works everybody like crazy.”
“You have any specific reason to suspect the murders were because of Upjohn?” September asked.
“Wha’d I just say? He’s an asshole!”
“I heard that Paul de Fore gave her a hard time for leaving on her break,” September said.
“God . . .” He shook his head. “She met me at that Starbucks close by Zuma to give me my keys, which she ran off with this morning by mistake. Stop trying to pin this on her. It’s Upjohn’s fault Rambo came in and shot the place up.” A pause, and then he said with a hitch to his voice, “That was the last time I saw her.”
Gretchen chose that moment to join back in, saying coolly, “She’s at Laurelton General now. You can stop by anytime. Do you have anything concrete to back up your theory that this was Upjohn’s fault? Something besides just not liking the guy?”
“All I know is that Jess doesn’t deserve this. Any of it.” His lips started to quiver a little and he smashed them together. “It’s Upjohn’s fault she got hurt. That’s on him . . . asshole,” he added.
They left after a few more questions that earned them more of the same. In the car Gretchen observed to September, “You’re a lot more patient than I am.”
She observed right back, “You haven’t set the bar too high.”
That earned her a snap of Gretchen’s head and a drop of her mouth. To date, September had been quietly taking it all in, not wanting to make waves, but her innate sense of humor couldn’t remain repressed for long.
Gretchen gave a short bark of laughter. “Okay,” she said. Then, “Let’s get our asses back to work.”
“We don’t want to be assholes,” September agreed.
They both broke into chuckles.
At the station, D’ Annibal was just coming back from an on-site interview at Zuma with Pauline Kirby as Gretchen and September entered the station. Gretchen glared at Urlacher, whose throat worked as if he were desperate to get the words out even though he knew she’d growl at him. He just managed to keep his requests for ID to himself.
D’Annibal was entering his office, taking off his coat and loosening his tie. His gray hair was smooth, his color high, as if he’d been standing in the sun for a little too long, which he probably had been.
“How’d it go?” Gretchen asked him, stopping outside his door.
“Fair. She kept zinging questions about Upjohn’s finances, his relationship with Dirkus’s mother, and the secrecy surrounding his operation. I kept deflecting.”
“Did you bring up the Martin killing?” she asked, as September joined her, both of them standing outside the office.
“I tried to say next to nothing except that we’re on the job.” He smiled thinly. “The usual. It’ll be on tonight’s news. Another reporter appears to be on the Martin homicide. Expect a call,” he said to September, seating himself behind his desk.
It was their cue to leave and as they walked away, Gretchen said, “Ever talked to the press?”
“Not about work.”
“Give ’em the basics: where the body was discovered, that the death was from a bullet wound—don’t say how many shots—that the name won’t be released until next of kin have been notified.”
“His parents are both gone. Jo is really all he has,” September reminded her.
“Don’t mention her name, either. Let ’em think we’re still notifying family, even if we aren’t.”
She asked innocently, “Do you want me to also keep it quiet about the fact that Olivia Dugan, Zuma’s missing employee, is a person of interest in the Trask Burcher Martin homicide?”
Gretchen shot her a look, realizing she was being put on. “Smart ass.”
September grinned. “You and Jaffe. Big with the ‘ass’ stuff.”
Gretchen pointed a finger at her. “I’m just sayin’, when you get the call, sound like you’re being overly helpful but give them as little as possible.”
“How do you propose I do that?”
“Omit, omit, omit.”
“What if I screw up?”
“You won’t. And if you do, you’d better hope to hell you get that other reporter instead of Pauline Kirby because she’ll eat you alive.”
The news came on at five and Auggie, who’d flopped himself on the bed and gone channel surfing the last ten minutes, switched to Channel Seven’s News at Five. His antennae were very aware of Liv Dugan, who had settled on the couch as if she were done for the day.
He called out to her. “You want anything to eat? You missed lunch.”
“I’m not hungry,” she called back.
“You should eat something.”
He heard her rustle around and then she was standing in his doorway. There was something elfin about her large eyes and pale face, but her chin was stubborn, and her arms were crossed.
“Wanna go get something to eat?” he asked. “I just was going to check the news.”
“I don’t want to show my face anymore than I have to.”
“But food . . .” He tried on his most winning smile. “It’s how we stay alive.”
“I don’t think I could eat anything. I’m just . . .” She looked over her shoulder as if she’d heard something. “I’m just not hungry.”
“There’s a deli about two miles away with the best soup around. I’ll go get some after the news and bring it back.”
“Maybe I could go and wait in the car,” she said, looking worried.
“Sure. Whatever . . .”
The lead story was a murder from the night before. Auggie looked at the screen as the young male reporter was saying that the shooting had happened around nine o’clock. The camera revealed a parking lot and then led them up to the second story where it zeroed in on a length of balcony toward one end of the building.
The gasp from Liv was almost a shriek. Her hands were at her mouth, and she was gaping at the television. Auggie’s gaze slammed from her back to the screen.
“. . . Laurelton police are waiting to notify next of kin before releasing the male victim’s name. If anyone has information, please contact the authorities. . . .”
“What?” Auggie asked her. “What?” But he was getting that strange feeling, like electricity running beneath his skin, that said something momentous was about to happen.
“That’s my apartment.”
He jumped off the bed, wishing to high heaven he had a DVR at this place. “Your apartment?” he snapped. He’d seen her apartment from the backside, but then she’d appeared on foot with her backpack and he’d followed her, never actually turning off the main road and into the drive of her parking lot.
“Who . . . who . . . oh, my God . . . Trask? Is it Trask?” She swayed on her feet, and he took two large steps and grabbed her by the arms, steadying her.
“The neighbor? The one who saw the photos?”
“Maybe it’s someone else. Maybe it’s . . .” She couldn’t come up with another alternative.
The news had moved on and suddenly there was Pauline Kirby, standing in a bright blue dress outside a two-story glass building with a large wooden door and thrusting a microphone toward Lieutenant Aubrey D’Annibal. The image caught Auggie unawares and he stood there in frozen surprise, his hands still clasped around Liv’s shaking shoulders.
“That’s Zuma,” Livvie choked out.
“Lieutenant, can you give us an update on the mass murder that took place here yesterday? Do you know what precipitated this deadly slaughter?”
D’Annibal winced a bit at the word “slaughter.” “We’re still sifting through evidence and interviewing employees.”
She jumped on that. “Has the missing employee been found? Ms. Dugan?”
The faintest hesitation and Auggie held his breath. D’Annibal said, “As soon as more information’s available, we’ll make sure the public’s made aware. Zuma Software’s owner, Mr. Kurt Upjohn, is through surgery, as is the other injured employee, Ms. Jessica Maltona.”
“We understand they’re both critical,” Pauline said.
“Aaron Dirkus, one of the deceased, was Kurt Upjohn’s son. Is Mr. Upjohn aware his son is dead?”
Auggie sucked air between his teeth while D’Annibal did something similar on the screen. “Yes,” he stated flatly.
“He suffered bullet wounds to his abdomen, whereas Ms. Maltona was shot in the chest?”
“We hope to have some good news about their recovery soon,” D’Annibal deflected.
“Is it true Zuma Software was creating software for the military?” Pauline leaned forward, trying to create a fake kind of tête-à-tête.
D’Annibal didn’t buy it for a minute. “As soon as we learn something definitive, we’ll let you know. Thank you.” And he moved away. The show cut to Pauline staring directly at the camera as she wrapped up with comments about how she hoped good news would be forthcoming about capturing the gunmen so we could all sleep more soundly in our beds.
Liv had collapsed against Auggie, and he’d wrapped his arms around her. He led her to the bed and had her sit down. She seemed to be boneless, so he told her to lie down, and she did so with a blank look on her face.
“Trask,” she said. “It’s Trask.”
“What’s his last name?”
“Um . . .” Tears were forming in the corners of her eyes. “I don’t . . . Martin, I think.”
“I’m gonna go find out what happened,” he answered, already moving, already planning.
“I’m going with you.”
“Stay here,” he ordered. “I’ll get some more information and I’ll bring back some soup.”
“I don’t want you to leave,” she said, swallowing hard.
He’d been halfway out of the room, but now he crossed back to the bed. Looking down at her, he said tautly, “I’ll be back. I promise. Do you believe me?”
She hesitated. “Yes. I don’t know why you’re doing this, but yes, I believe you.”
“Stay put. Try to relax. I’ll be back in an hour or so.”
“An hour . . .”
“Or so,” he said. “Don’t panic. Trust me.”
She nodded, and he was gone.
He phoned the lieutenant as soon as he was out of view of the house. D’Annibal answered on the second ring, as if he were waiting for his call, which he probably was.
“Where the hell are you, Rafferty?” D’Annibal demanded as an intro.
Auggie shot back, “What happened to this Trask Martin? Who’s on that? He’s Liv Dugan’s neighbor.”
“We know that. Did she tell you his name?” he asked suspiciously. “We didn’t release it.”
“Yeah, she told me. She nearly fainted when she saw that he’d been gunned down!”
“You know, the only reason we’re not chasing her down like a dog is because supposedly she’s been with you,” he returned levelly.
“She has been with me. Ever since yesterday afternoon.”
“How the hell did that happen?”
Auggie thought about how Liv had climbed into his Jeep and held him at gunpoint and decided some things were better left unsaid. “We struck up a conversation and one thing led to another.”
A hesitation, then, he managed to laugh faintly. “You always get the women.”
“It isn’t like that.” Yet, he thought. It isn’t like that yet. “I haven’t told her who I am, but she’s scared, and she thinks the other Zuma shootings were incidental, in that she thinks the killer was after her.”
“Mostly because of her past . . .” Auggie gave him an abbreviated rundown of Liv’s mother’s death and the package that was sent, and finished with, “I don’t know if she’s right, but I want to follow this through. Even if it doesn’t pan out with the Zuma shootings, there’s something there.”
“What about the neighbor?”
“She was sick when she saw it on the news. She believes his shooting has to do with her, too, but doesn’t know why. That’s why I’m sticking close to her. There’s a connection there. Has to be.”
The lieutenant humphed his agreement. “Nine’s on the case,” he said, answering one of Auggie’s earlier questions.
“My sister?” He stared through the windshield, aware of a cop car ahead. “Hang on,” he said, pulling the phone from his ear. He didn’t want to be pulled over for using a cell phone while driving and he didn’t have Bluetooth, or an ear bud with him.
Nine was the detective on the Trask Martin homicide? Nine?
The deli was on his left and he pulled over and into a spot. “You still there?” he asked the lieutenant.
“Yeah. How soon can you bring Dugan in?”
“Uh . . . She’s got some trust issues, with the police. It’ll happen. Just give me a little time. Believe me, she had nothing to do with Martin’s death. She was with me the whole time.” An eely feeling slid down his back. But she was gone for a while last night. She went to see her brother.
“Talk to your sister,” D’ Annibal said. “She can give you the particulars about the Martin homicide. Don’t take too long. I want Dugan brought in by Monday.”
“Okay. Oh, and have someone look into the serial strangler who was around the Rock Springs area about twenty years ago.”
“I remember that case,” D’Annibal answered. “What’s that got to do with this?”
“I don’t know. Nothing maybe. Olivia Dugan’s from that area.”
“All right. Monday,” the lieutenant reminded him as he hung up.
Auggie sat for a moment, staring through the windshield.
But Liv didn’t fake that reaction to Martin’s death. That was real, he reminded himself. Worry was scratching at his brain. He knew Liv wasn’t the Zuma shooter. Knew she wasn’t . . . But she’d taken her gun with her when she’d gone to see her brother, so she could have stopped by her apartment.
But no. It just wasn’t true. Couldn’t be. She was too careful and responsible and nice.
And he liked her.
He punched in the number to his sister’s cell. “Well, good God,” Nine greeted him with when the connection was made. “How’re you doin’, big bro? What’s been happening in your life? Having a little R&R with one of our suspects?”
“Not one of your suspects. Maybe a person of interest. How’re you doin’, yourself?”
“Okay.” She sounded wary.
“I am with Olivia Dugan,” he admitted. “I told D’Annibal about it.”
“And how did that come about?” Like D’Annibal before her, he gave her a quick recap of how he’d come to be with Liv. She listened silently and when he finished, she said, “So, you’re bringing her in.”
“Not quite yet. I’ve left out the part that I’m a detective.”
“Oh, peachy. Why? No, I don’t even want to know. Just tell her, and let’s get her down here for a statement. The victim died at her doorstep, after all. I interviewed Martin’s girlfriend, Jo. She thinks we oughtta be looking at Olivia Dugan.”
“Any particular reason for that, other than that they’re neighbors.”
“Not as far as I can tell.” September filled him in on what she’d learned about the murder of Trask Burcher Martin, which wasn’t a helluva lot at this point.
“What kind of gun was used in the killing?” Auggie asked. He tried to keep his voice on the edge of disinterest even though he was keyed to the answer.
But his sister knew him too well. “Why?”
“September . . .” he said on a long-suffering sigh. “Just tell me.”
Thank you, God. He closed his eyes and exhaled. Liv had a .38. That cleared her, unless she possessed a second gun, which was about as likely as igloos in Florida.
“I gotta go. D’Annibal told me to bring her in by Monday. I’ll do that.”
“Why can’t you bring her in now?”
“I love you, too,” he said.
“Don’t play with me. You’ve got to tell her who you are!”
“You’re breaking up. Gotta go.”
He clicked off. When she rang back, he ignored the call. Pocketing his cell, he climbed out of the car . . . and remembered his wallet beneath his seat. He hadn’t asked Liv for money, and now how was he going to explain being able to purchase the soup?
Maybe he should just tell her who he was. What would she do? What could she do?
Peeling back the tape that held his wallet to the underside of the driver’s seat, he pulled it out and extracted a twenty, then put it back in place. He went inside and placed a to-go order for two bowls of chicken tortilla soup. A young woman served it into cardboard containers with plastic lids and placed them into a bag along with hunks of baguette. Auggie felt his mouth water as he headed back to the Jeep and then drove home.
At the house, he parked the Jeep and yanked down the garage door. He slipped the key into the lock of the back door, twisted, gently pushed it open and called softly, “Lucy, I’m home . . .” into the darkened interior.
She appeared like a wraith, standing at the edge of the kitchen in her jeans and a light top, the color indiscernible in the blackness of the room.
“Can I turn on a light?” he asked.
“Do you have to?” She sounded uncertain.
“Are we hiding? I mean, more than before?”
“I thought maybe . . . you wouldn’t return.”
He flipped the switch and they blinked at each other. He realized her shirt was light pink and she had a black pullover in hand. Beside her was her backpack, zipped up and standing at the ready. The package was nowhere in sight. “You were leaving,” he said.
“Thinking about it.”
“Ye of little faith. Here.” He set the bag of food on the table and pulled out the containers of soup. The scent of chili and tomato was enough to send his salivary glands into overdrive once again. There were plastic soupspoons inside and he handed one to Liv.
For a moment she hesitated, then said, “Did you—learn anything about Trask?”
“A few things. Sit down and eat. We’ll talk afterwards.”
Fifteen minutes later they were still at the table, but sated and quiet. Liv had been so certain he’d left her that she’d gone through seven levels of hell debating what to do next. Now, she felt weak and less sure of herself, all her energy used up. Trask was dead, and she didn’t know if she had the strength to go on. It was all happening too fast and she couldn’t put the pieces together in any meaningful way. Her head was loaded with information, none of which made sense.
She looked into the bottom of her empty soup container. “This was really good.”
“I know. Sometimes I’ve gone there every night for a week.”
Her lips tightened. “How did you pay for the soup?” she asked carefully.
He didn’t miss a beat. “I stole from your purse.”
“You couldn’t have. It was in my backpack.”
He grinned, then, looking so boyish and unrepentant that she was afraid to hold his gaze, afraid what he would see in her face. “Okay, I scrounged some money out of my car. No easy trick. Luckily there was a bunch of change in the glove box.”
She hadn’t noticed any extra cash when she’d popped it open, but she hadn’t looked all that closely, either. She’d been so undone that he’d lied to her about the car charger.
And also he’d lied about having an ex-wife.
“Just how much of what comes out of your mouth is the truth?” she asked.