Authors: Debra Webb,Regan Black
“N-n-no,” the voice on the other end of the line stuttered.
“Good.” Deke ended the call and tucked his phone back into his pocket.
“Yes, my dear,” he said, coming to his feet. “Don’t tell me duty calls.” She’d already taken her overcoat from the hall tree.
“Something like that.” She hesitated, her bold, blue gaze roaming over his face. “Thank you for the coffee, Deke.”
He stepped forward, taking her coat to help her into it. He let his hands brush the soft skin at her nape as he adjusted the collar, smiling to himself when she trembled.
“Let’s not wait a week,” he said. “Come back for dinner tomorrow night.”
She turned, and he took great pleasure watching her face as all of her responsibilities went to war against the desire he’d carefully stoked. “I would like that,” she replied.
Her mouth tipped down, heavy with regret. “I have a security update tomorrow night.”
“Stop by after. I’ll show you my latest seascape,” he said, hoping she’d laugh.
She did. “I know you better than that.”
“I would like you to,” he said, raising her hands to his lips.
She took a small step back, her eyes wide.
He cursed himself for pushing too hard, but he had a schedule to keep.
“I’ll call you when my meeting is done tomorrow.” She paused at the door. “Then you can let me know if I should stop by or if it’s too late.”
He knew she wasn’t referring to the time. Again, she impressed him by understanding the little nuances. If only more of the men he worked with were as astute.
As he closed the door behind her he let himself enjoy another heady rush of anticipation. As angry as he was that she’d busted a drug shipment his clients relied on, she deserved respect. When she came by after her meeting everything would be different. She would be in pain over the blow he was about to inflict on her precious Belclare and he would be the only one able to soothe her. Tomorrow night, his plans would be in full swing and his reputation preserved.
He watched from the sidelight window as she drove away. She made him angry, yes, but he liked her. He could send a message to others and still preserve the idealism that made her so unique. Silently he vowed that she wouldn’t live to know how badly she’d misjudged him.
It was the only courtesy he could afford when it came to Chief Abby Jensen.
Abby left Deke’s house, almost grateful to be called to a vandalism scene at the town limit. When he touched her, she couldn’t decide how to feel about it. Maybe because he didn’t touch her often enough? She was starting to wonder if anyone would ever touch her enough.
She wasn’t sure about the answer, which only annoyed her. When they’d started these weekly coffee meetings it had been a way for her to keep tabs on the enigmatic and cloistered resident of Belclare. Now, though, the truth was far more embarrassing.
For months, she’d been fighting her attraction to the man. He was in his mid-forties, but the gray at his temples and his artistic worldview only made him more distinguished in her eyes. The flawless manners, superb taste and maturity didn’t hurt, either.
He treated her as if she was someone special and she liked the idea that at least one person saw beyond her badge and title to the woman underneath. She liked to think of herself as more than a uniform dedicated to maintaining law and order.
“So you’ve been taking a weekly coffee break for the ego boost,” she muttered, drumming her fingertips on her steering wheel. Even in solitude that sounded pretty pathetic.
Except it had felt anything but pathetic when he’d called her passionate. And that invite to dinner...was he heading where he seemed to be heading?
“You’re flattered,” she said, coaching herself right out of the potential romance of it. She hadn’t had much of a social life since taking the top post in the Belclare police department, hesitant to set herself up for idle gossip. “Get over yourself. The positive attention is nice, but you can’t afford the distraction.”
As if on cue, her cell phone launched into “I Fought the Law,” the ringtone she’d programmed for business calls. She toggled the button on her steering wheel to answer. “Chief Jensen.”
“Hi, Chief. It’s Danny.”
“I’m ten minutes away.”
“Right. It’s just...”
She waited. He cleared his throat as worst-case scenarios danced at the edge of her mind. She would not entertain those unless and until facts forced her to do so.
Her personal life might be a haze of self-doubt and bad timing, but her career had been marked with success every step of the way. Her work ethic, common sense and focus had served her well and she wasn’t about to toss those strengths out the window.
“Spit it out, Danny.”
“The responding officers want you to know the media is already on-site.”
“Thanks for the heads-up.” She appreciated the warning. If the media was on-site, then Mayor Scott wouldn’t be far behind. Now she was doubly grateful for choosing the suit and heels today. In her opinion, her suits made her more relatable than the uniform, especially after her hard-nosed speech had become a viral internet sensation.
As she approached the scene, she cringed at the growing crowd. Good grief. If she’d just heard, how had a news crew from Baltimore arrived so quickly? Her officers were pushing people back, but that only gave the media a better overall shot for tonight’s headlines.
It looked worse in person than it had on her phone. The Welcome to Belclare display had been altered with spray paint. The phrases “Death to Chief Jensen” and “Open season on Belclare” were now blotting out points of town pride.
The threats weren’t new, but they’d been out of the public eye. This...
was bold and obvious. It was a challenge she couldn’t ignore. “Open season on Belclare” required a careful, strategic response. How had whoever was responsible for this pulled it off without getting caught?
A reporter shoved a microphone in front of her as she went to join the responding officers. “Chief, what’s your reaction to such personal threats?”
She pushed her clenched fists deeper into her coat pockets. “The childish vandal responsible for this negative display will be found and dealt with.”
“Are there any security cameras out here that might have caught the vandal?”
Abby kept walking, refusing to acknowledge the silly question. There was a Christmas tree lot just around the next bend and nothing but trees until the sign. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to speak with my officers.” She ducked under the tape the responding officers had used to block the immediate area.
Reporters shouted at her back.
“Should the citizens of Belclare be taking more defensive action?”
“Will you shut down the city?”
“Will the Christmas Village be canceled?”
She couldn’t let that one go. She turned, ready to answer when the mayor’s voice rang out through the crisp winter air.
“This small attempt to interrupt our annual traditions is hardly cause for alarm.”
Abby couldn’t believe he was taking her side.
“Chief Jensen’s—” he hesitated for three seconds “—
has obviously created a few unpleasant ripples, but Belclare is strong and united, and determined to make this the best holiday season ever. We look forward to seeing all of you this weekend.”
Abby found herself fighting a sudden urge to silence Mayor Scott. She banished the compulsion. He was better in the media spotlight and, whether or not he believed her or agreed with her methods, ultimately they were working toward the same goal: a safe community and a safe holiday event.
She let him ramble on giving the proper sound bites that likely included a subtle invitation for other criminal justice professionals to apply for her job.
“Do we have anything?” Abby ignored her chilled feet as she listened to her officers explain what they’d found. Or rather what they hadn’t found.
“One of the vendors coming in for the weekend reported it,” said Officer Gadsden.
“Did you get a statement?”
“We did, so it helps set a time frame for the vandals.”
She stepped closer, pressed her finger to a dripping streak of paint. “Still tacky. Someone had fun during their lunch hour.” She looked to the ground. “Any hope for shoe prints?”
“No.” Officer Gadsden knelt down and Abby followed suit. “The snow’s been trampled by more than one person. Right back to the road.”
“Great.” Abby wanted to clean this up herself, right this minute. “See what you can get off any traffic cameras between here and Baltimore. And ask around Sadie’s and other restaurants. Maybe the vandals came into town for lunch.”
“You got it.”
She covered her mouth with her hand, unwilling to risk anyone in the media reading her lips. “As you take pictures, get the bystanders.” It wasn’t unusual for vandals of this sort to hang around to watch the cops scramble for answers.
She turned slowly, unable to ignore the mayor’s shout. “Yes?” It was a small measure of relief that he remained on the other side of the tape. For her, the shock was seeing him alone. Victor Scott loved his entourage, whether it was his hired staff or an impromptu gathering of media professionals.
He waved her closer and she did her best to hide her distaste at the arrogant summons. Mayor Scott enjoyed the political posturing, but playing along was her least favorite, necessary part of the job. She preferred a straightforward exchange. Less chance for mixed signals or missed goals that way.
“How long until you have this cleaned up?” he demanded with his practiced concerned frown in place.
“The sign or the crime?”
“You can’t manage both?”
“Repairing the sign isn’t exactly police responsibility,” she said, clinging to her last shred of composure. “As for the vandal—” she glanced back at the damage “—we believe there was more than one person involved. There are databases with graffiti signatures and tags—”
“This criminal signed his work?” the mayor exclaimed too loudly.
“We’re not sure yet. That’s part of the problem. Or the solution,” she added, just to give him something else to focus on. “As for the sign itself, once we have our pictures it can be repainted and repaired right away.”
Abby and the mayor swiveled toward the pitiful wail of Mr. Filmore. When Mayor Scott rolled his eyes, she realized they shared a mutual frustration with the historical society president. It was strangely affirming.
“What now, Filmore?” With a hand on Filmore’s shoulder, the mayor stopped him from barreling into the crime scene.
“You can’t just
“We can’t just leave it,” the mayor shot back.
Abby glanced at her officers, grateful they were snapping pictures of everything and everyone as she’d asked and not laughing aloud at the ridiculous debate.
“This gateway to Belclare has been meticulously maintained for over one hundred and eighty years. It must be cleaned, not merely slapped at with another coat of paint.”
The mayor loomed over the skinny frame of Filmore. “I am not allowing those threats to remain visible any longer than necessary. Get a team out here if you must but get it handled immediately.”
For once, Abby was grateful for Filmore’s presence. The man’s shrill insistence about preservation diverted the mayor’s attention from her.
She used the time and space to take her own inventory of faces in the crowd. She recognized reporters and television station logos. More than a few people from town had followed the noise and commotion to come take a look. She felt the collective irritation from those business owners whose praise for her drug bust quickly turned to criticism after her speech garnered national attention.
She returned to her officers. “Keep the area secure. Do we have anything to cover it in the short term?”
“I have a tarp in my car.”
She nodded. “It’s a start.” Pointing to the camera Gadsden was using, she asked, “Is anyone standing out to you?”
He shook his head. “No one seems too proud of themselves. Except the mayor.”
She chuckled. “I’m sure he has photo evidence of his whereabouts for the entire morning.”
“Our chances of catching the vandals and making an arrest are pretty slim.”
“All we can do is our best.” She pulled her car keys from her pocket. “I’ll find someone to babysit the sign.” Her department was stretched too thin already, but she refused to allow a repeat performance.
“We could put up a couple of motion-activated cameras,” Gadsden offered.
“With this circus watching?” She shook her head. “I like the idea but the vandals would only come back and hit those first.” She scanned the faces on the other side of the road again. It was a valid idea, if they could find a window when no one else was around. Too late to contain the media, she knew Belclare residents would be upset with her all over again. “Let’s talk about it at the station when we have more than the nothing we have now.”
Gadsden agreed and Abby headed back to her car, giving appropriate sound bites to the media on the way. She wanted the quiet of her office and some heat for her freezing feet. Unfortunately, she was blocked in by a dark blue pickup truck she didn’t recognize.
It had to belong to one of the temporary workers or vendors. She stifled the urge to look back at the death threat on the sign. She would not let some silly stunt likely staged by a teenager with too much idle time and a bad sense of humor get under her skin. Paranoia was neither professional nor helpful.
“Excuse me, Chief Jensen.”
A car door slammed with a bang and, despite her best effort, her body jerked, braced for an attack.
“Didn’t mean to startle you.”
Abby surveyed the tall stranger who seemed determined to show up in her life today. And he
startled her. Denying it would be foolish. “No problem. Mr. O’Brien, isn’t it?”
“That would be my father,” he said with a softer smile that did strange things to her pulse. “I’m just Riley, remember?” He leaned against the pickup’s door. “I heard the breaking news on the way out.” His brown eyes were taking in the ugly scene behind her. “Any leads?”