Authors: Lynn Hightower
“Good God, Lena, what did you do to the wall?”
Joel, knowing me as he does, had stopped on the way home for a double order of Pad Thai, a bottle of Casa Diablo Merlot, and, even better, Maynard the cat. Predictably, Maynard was deeply offended by being put in a carrier, no matter how comfortable, and he ignored me and did his stiff-legged walk across the room to sniff and explore. He wandered in and out of the living room for a while before he tucked himself up on the cold hearth to work out the rest of his sulk. It was what he didn't do that made me realize he was slowing downâno racing up and down the stairs, no howls from the kitchen, or experimental climbs up the doorjamb. He was losing weight, suffering from arthritis in his back legs; but he was still up for a master sulk. I wondered how he would adjust to the house. His patience had already worn thin from being transported back and forth from Whitney's house to Joel's loft, where he endured the indignity of not being allowed to eat Joel's lizard. Maynard tolerates Joel, as he does most people, but he loves only me. And Rick.
Joel and I prefer style over substance, so we used chopsticks instead of forks. Also, we didn't have forks. Joel opened the wine, then built a teepee of splintered twigs and balled up paper towels in the blackened fireplace grate. A tiny flame ignited. Joel blew on it until it spread and flickered higher, then he added the smallest piece of wood in the bundle he bought from the Pilot station down the road.
“Man make fire for woman,” he said, softly, without beating his chest.
He'd had the foresight to bring a blanket, because he is Joel, and Joel thinks of everything, and he sat cross-legged beside me to eat. Maynard, who had fulfilled his obligatory pout, checked out the fire before curling up beside me, purring whenever I stroked his head. It struck me that there was a time that the minute Joel and I got together there would have been sex before food. I wasn't bothered. I was hungry.
“So tell me,” I said. “What was the big deal that you had to go in today?”
Joel was chewing, and I knew he wouldn't answer till the end of his bite. A methodical man, my Joel.
“You remember that scene in
The Wizard of Oz
when swarms of Monkey Men came down out of the skies and snatched Dorothy and the Tin Man, etcetera?”
“Yeah, and the little dog, too.” I picked up my wine, leaving sticky fingerprints on the rim of the glass.
“The Feds have found us. They're interested in the case.”
“When you say Feds, you mean ATF?”
“Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.”
“I thought you were already keeping tabs with them, because of Cory Edgers's connection.”
“We were, but that was with the local office. And they've been cooperativeânot happy, since Cheryl Dunkirk was their intern, and running their own investigationâbut I never had the sense they were working a seriously adverse agenda. But now we've got a new guy on his way in from California, and I think the agenda is â¦ evolving. As it stands I'm out of the loop. That makes me nervous.”
“Why an agent from California? Why not one of the locals?”
“Don't know. Maybe to keep clear of any personal loyalties or relationships.”
“But Edgers hasn't worked with them that long, has he?”
“On loan from the sheriff's department in â¦ where was it?”
“Is that usual?”
Joel poked through his noodles. He looked depressed. “Happens all the time. They need extra staffing, they beef up with natives. They like to work
rather than against local law enforcement. And it gives the local guys some extra pay. But on the other hand, it can generate resentment. You got the Feds making fifty, sixty-five thousand. And a guy like Edgers lucky to pull down twenty.”
“I know you talked to the sheriff in London. What did he say about Edgers? He seem surprised about the whole Cheryl Dunkirk thing?”
Joel grimaced. “Not really. I got the impression Edgers was a screwup and they were glad to get him off their hands for a while. Their gain being ATF's loss.”
“What about the intern angle?”
Joel shrugged. “Guy's got a wife, one kid. I've talked to the wife. Intelligent, attractive â¦ down to earth. I liked her. She obviously didn't think Cory could have had anything to do with Cheryl Dunkirk's disappearance. She says he's a workaholic who never comes home and she doesn't think he'd have time to fool around.”
I rolled my eyes. “That's exactly the type that would get snarled up.”
“I know. I refrained from rubbing her nose in it. When she's ready to face it, she will. But I did establish that on the night Cheryl disappeared, Edgers wasn't home. And he didn't mention Dunkirk to her, or say a word about it until she brought it up. Evidently her mother called her to clue her in as soon as the story broke.”
“What an idiot. How could Edgers think she wouldn't find out?”
“âThink' seems to be the operative word. The complication is that it looks like the ATF has another case that this one crosses, I'm just not sure where. I don't know if it has something to do with Edgers or Cheryl, or if there's something more complex here than a love affair gone bad.”
“The family's viewpoint would support that.”
“We got our court order, so Edgers is going to have to donate some DNA. And the Commonwealth Attorney's office is kicking around the possibility of going before the grand jury, but right now that's just talk. They don't have enough to make a case. And now the ATF is doing an about-face, and asking me to lay off Edgers for a while.”
“Huh.” I noticed floating particles in my wineglass. No wonder Joel never liked to drink after me. True love only took you so far.
Joel refilled my glass. “Could be this guy's coming in from out of town just to make it abundantly clear that nobody is protecting anybody, and that the investigation is completely aboveboard. Which wouldn't be a bad idea.”
“But that's not what you think is up?”
“Are you okay with it?”
“Assuming I have a choice?” Joel sorted through his noodles, found a piece of chicken and put it in his mouth. “I'm not going to bring my investigation to a standstill, but I'll cooperate when I can.”
“Spoken like a guy who grew up in the Watergate years.”
Joel's lips tugged to one side. I had amused him.
He caught my eye, and raised one brow. There is something very sexy about the way he does this, and I know exactly what he is thinking. He took my chopsticks and the Pad Thai cartons, moved the wineglasses out of range, and deposited Maynard in front of the fireplace. Then he smiled and settled close beside me on the blanket.
“And how are you?” he asked. He put his arms around me, and kissed me. His tongue tasted like wine.
“I missed you today.”
Joel moved a hand up under my black sweatshirt. “I missed you, too.”
With a quick flick of his wrist, Joel executed the singularly male maneuver that disengages a bra in the space of a second.
He kissed my ear. “That's better, isn't it?”
“How about that?” He was smiling, watching my face. “Better without the clothes, don't you think?”
I did, but I was too breathless to say so.
“Let me help you with that.”
Joel has a way of getting a woman out of a pair of tight jeans that is impressive unless I dwell on how this method was developed. I was cold without my sweatshirt and blue jeans, and he pulled the blanket up around my shoulders. I noticed the firelight reflected in the wood floors, the living room dark save the flicker of flame. It was as simple as that, a certain man pulling a blanket up over my shoulders because he worried that I was cold. Happiness, I mean.
Joel held me close to his chest, running his fingers up and down the inside of my thighs, kissing the side of my neck, sucking my lower lip into his mouth. I closed my eyes and relaxed against him and was acutely aware when his muscles tensed, and he went very still. I opened my eyes. Joel's face was a fingertip away from mine and he was looking at me in a way that was more speculative than loverlike.
“What?” I asked him.
“What you just said, a little while ago. When we were talking about the possibility that Cheryl's murder has something more to it than an intern being seduced and discarded. You said the family viewpoint would support that angle.”
He settled away from me, lying on his side. I pulled back from him, propped myself against the wall and wadded my sweatshirt onto my lap.
“Yeah, that's what I said. I've spoken to Paul Brady and saw his daughter, Miranda, today. They want to finance their own investigation. I think the main point is to ease their mind, so that they know they did everything they could. Get an independent opinion about what happened to Cheryl.”
“And you turned them down.” Joel was so still as he watched, as if my decision answered a question he didn't want to ask.
“I took the case.”
He looked away from me and exhaled sharply. Then he stood up and reached for his pants and shirt, dressing methodically, wordlessly.
“I'll sleep at home tonight,” he said.
“Does that mean here or the loft?”
He was just as aware as I was that a new bed had been delivered and assembled yesterday afternoon, and that we had planned to sleep in it for the first time tonight.
“You don't want to discuss this?” I asked him.
He glanced down at me, hands working deftly to knot his tie. “If you'd wanted to talk about it, I assume you'd have brought it up before you took the case.”
“Have you accepted a fee?”
“A retainer. Yes.”
“I hope it's worth it.”
Joel never got angry with meâeven when I got angry with him. His calmness diffused things between us; kept us running on an even keel. I'd never understood how he could be so even tempered and gentle with me. I'd even wondered if it meant he was emotionally lazy or something ridiculous like that. Leave it to me to make a good thing questionable.
But he was angry now.
“So what, Joel, you're just going to leave?”
He started picking up the boxes of Pad Thai, gathering up the two wineglasses.
“Stop cleaning up, dammit, and talk to me.”
Joel paused, but did not look at me. He set the glasses and garbage down very gently on the floor and headed toward the door.
“If you're going to go to the trouble of putting your tie back on for the drive home, why don't you tighten it up a little and choke yourself with it?”
Joel closed the front door and made a point to turn the key in the lock.
I could not believe he was going to walk out like this, and my hands were shaking, my stomach full of butterflies. I didn't mind arguing things out, but I can't stand it when a man walks off and won't deal with things. I hate uncertainty. I want confrontation and closure.
I grabbed the front door and twisted the doorknob. “I don't need you to lock me in, Joel. If you're leaving, just go.”
I knew he was standing right outside the door.
Come in here
, I thought.
Come back and talk to me
“I'm tired, Lena. I need to go home and get some sleep.”
“Fine then, go.”
I heard footsteps on the sidewalk, a car engine catch, the grind of tires on the drive.
Would he really be able to sleep? Could he just set this aside and go on with his routine, because I knew that I'd spend the next ten hours agonizing and punching my pillow.
At least now I knew what made him mad.
I woke up early the next morning with a tight feeling in my eyes and throat. Maynard was asleep at the foot of the bed, and he opened his eyes to slits, stretched and yawned widely and rolled over on his back. It was still dark outside, but going grayish. The phone hadn't woken me, so Joel hadn't called. Time to get up and go to work.
But first I was going to have a long soak in the tub.
There wasn't any bubble bath, and there was only one towel and it was one of Joel's old onesâa dingy sky blue. I turned on the faucet, wound my hair up in a clip, and padded downstairs after Maynard, trying to remember if Joel had brought cat food.
He hadn't. I looked down at the cat who looked up at me. “Ummm,” I said. And then I remembered the potato chipsâmy cat, like me, had bad eating habits.
I gave them to him whole so he could bat them around and kill them before he ate them alive. I peeled a Styrofoam cup down to about an inch high, filled it with water, and set it down on the floor. A large, curled chip skated past my toe and stopped just under the overhang of the cabinet next to the stove. I turned and headed back upstairs.
It is amazing how deep a claw-foot tub is. The water level rose slowly. If I'd turned the faucets on just before I went to bed last night, I'd have a bath ready right about now. I climbed in, winced and added a little more cold water to the mix. I leaned into the back of the tub and sighed. My legs floated free and I slid and would have gone under if the water level had been higher. The tub was too long.
I wondered what Joel would have said if I'd told him about taking Miranda out to look at Cheryl's car. I wondered about Miranda, thinking that I had made McFee and myself vulnerable to the discretion of a twenty-year-old girl I had known for less than twenty-four hours. Of course, if she was less than discreet, we could deny everything.
The water finally reached the halfway mark, and I added more hot to the mix. There is nothing that matches the embrace of a hot bath as it leaches the tension out of your body. But it was hard to relax when I had to hang on to the edges of the tub to keep my head above water. I turned sidewaysâcramped, but I could rest my head with no fear of drowning.