Thirty-Six and a Half Motives: Rose Gardner Mystery #9 (Rose Gardner Mystery Series) (10 page)

BOOK: Thirty-Six and a Half Motives: Rose Gardner Mystery #9 (Rose Gardner Mystery Series)
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“You tell me,” I said. “Ten seconds after you hung up, there was an explosion.”

He glanced around the room, quickly dismissing the old man. “Merv’s car blew up.”

“But how . . . ?”

“I took care of it.”

I had a hard time picturing Skeeter doing his own dirty work. But I decided against asking for more details. I probably didn’t want to know. “How’s Merv?”

His good mood vanished. “He’s been better.”

“He’s okay?”

He lifted his shoulder in a half-shrug, but I saw through his nonchalance. He was worried. “He got away and someone’s lookin’ after him.”

Which meant he wasn’t in a hospital. “Shouldn’t you be with him?”

He stole a piece of my bacon and took a bite, his eyes lifting to mine in a challenge. “Do I look like a damn nurse to you?”

“No, but—”

“Merv doesn’t want me there holdin’ his hand. He wants me to catch the bastards who shot him.” He dropped the bacon back on my plate, his mood even darker. “Tell me what you know.”

“Teagen’s friend’s name is Marshal. They were both hired by a woman, but they ultimately answer to J.R. They kept saying she wouldn’t be happy, but they sounded a heck of a lot more scared when they talked about Simmons.”

“They damn well should be scared. J.R. Simmons does not suffer fools gladly.”

“Marshal told Teagen that he should have killed me like he was supposed to, but Teagen said his job was just to snatch me and then go kill Mason.”

Skeeter’s scowl deepened and he nodded.

“The files in that shack were the same ones I saw in Kate’s apartment. I think this proves she’s been working for her father all along.”

The waitress walked up and set a plate of food in front of Skeeter. “Here ya go, sugar.”

Skeeter waited until she was out of sight before reaching for the syrup. “Kate never seemed interested in the family business before. She was a rebel, always challenging her father, but she was always a schemer. It could be that she realized working for Daddy was too lucrative to pass up.”

I thought about it for a second. “What I don’t understand is why she wanted me to get back with Joe if she was just gonna have me killed.”

“It would make a lot of sense if she holds a grudge against him.” He leaned forward. “Think about it. J.R. waited until I had everything I’d been working toward before he struck out at me. Maybe Kate Simmons was trying to do the same thing with Joe.”

“But I wouldn’t go back to him. So why go through with it?”

“She must have decided it would have to be enough. Why else have the video of your death sent to Deveraux while he was in Joe’s office? And Kate was there to watch, don’t forget.”

I sat back in my seat, feeling lightheaded. “Oh, my word. How can someone be so cold?”

“They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” he said as he poured syrup over his pancakes.

The bitterness in his voice told me there was a story there. I decided to worm it out of him. “Scooter’s your brother. He’s friends with Bruce Wayne.”

He looked up at me in surprise. “What’s that got to do with anything?”

“Seems to me that you know a whole lot more about me than I know about you.”

He turned his attention back to his plate. “And that’s how it’s supposed to be.”

“Not if we’re partners.”

He sawed through his fried egg. “You turned that down.”

“We may not be partners in your business, but we’re partners in this mess.”

He shook his head. “Not by a long shot.”

He reached for his cup of coffee, but I snatched it before he could get to it.

“Skeeter, how can you say that?” I searched his eyes, trying not to let my temper get the best of me. “We’re in this together. Do you consider me your underling?”

He remained silent, but his clenched jaw told me I was getting to him.

“Look, I know you’re used to barkin’ orders at people, but I’m sick to death of takin’ orders, and you damn well know it. Now we’re either partners in this, or I’m taking what I know and going home.” I pointed my finger in his face. “And I’ll send Jed and whoever else you assign to watch over me away.”

The veins in his temples throbbed, but I held my ground, refusing to be the first to cave in our staring contest.

Five seconds later, he dropped his gaze and attacked his pancakes.

We stayed like that for a good minute or two, Skeeter eating like he was getting paid to do it while I crunched on the last of my bacon and cradled his coffee in my hand.

I studied him as he ignored me—except I realized that wasn’t quite true. He was fully aware of what I was doing, just like he was aware of the waitress, the short order cook, and the man at the counter. He was even aware of the door, despite the fact that his back was to it. He’d suggested this place because there was a mirror on the wall behind me, giving him a view of the entire room.

Skeeter Malcolm was no fool.

But his personal life was also as well-guarded as Fort Knox. Jed seemed to be the only one who had access, and that was only granted because they shared a past. No, Skeeter wasn’t ignoring me—he was fortifying his walls.

But then he surprised the bejiggers out of me. “Scooter’s my younger brother. Not by much though.” He kept his gaze on his plate. “Growing up, people always thought we were twins. They said I got all the brains and the brawn, and Scooter got the leftovers.”

“Why would people say something so cruel?”

His gaze lifted to mine. “Why would your mother lock you in a closet?” He paused. “I learned very early on that it’s human nature to be cruel. To attack the weak. I studied people. How they worked. Why they did what they did. And after I faced my father’s bootstrap more times than I could count, I decided I’d never be under anyone’s heel again.”

“That’s why you went to work for J.R. You saw it as your ticket out.”

“I was tired of being dirt poor. I was known around here as one of the dirty Malcolm boys. I never stood a chance at being anything more. Unless I made it happen myself. So I left and never planned on coming back.”

“Until J.R. made you.”

He nodded. “Turns out I was still under someone’s heel after all.” He released a short laugh. “But I realized that everyone’s under someone’s heel. It’s just a matter of how tolerable it is.”

He didn’t appear to be under anyone’s heel at the moment, but I didn’t want to ask anything that would get him to shut down again. “Did Scooter resent people being mean to him?”

He chuckled. “Have you ever met Scooter?”

“No.”

A smile spread across his face. “Scooter’s special. Not a mean bone in his body.” He took a breath. “He wasn’t born quite right. The cord was wrapped around his neck, and our mother said he came out looking like a ripe blueberry. That’s why she named him Blue.”

I blinked. “Wait. His name isn’t Scooter?”

“It’s his nickname.”

My mouth dropped open. “So what’s your given name?”

His smile dropped, and he studied me for a moment. “James.”

“I had no idea . . .”

He laughed as he reached across the table and grabbed his coffee cup from my hands. “You think I was born with this name?”

The way he spat out the statement told me he hated it. “How’d you get saddled with Skeeter?”

He took a sip of his coffee. “My daddy was a mean ol’ cuss. He beat my momma. He beat Scooter and me. I tried my best to spare my momma and Scooter from it, but one night . . .” His face darkened, and he looked down at the table. “He was drunk and he’d lost a shit ton of money on the horses, so he came home and took it out on us.”

My chest tightened, and part of me wanted to show him sympathy, but I knew he didn’t want it. He’d stop his story if I said anything or so much as touched him.

“He could hardly stand upright, but he was still beating the shit out of my mother with that damned bootstrap.” His face tensed. “I grabbed his arm to stop him, but he was still strong enough to shake me off. He looked down at me, his eyes full of hate, and said, ‘Boy, you ain’t near strong enough to stop me. Yer nothing but a blood-suckin’ skeeter the way you feed off me.’ Then a fire lit his eyes, and he turned to Scooter and said, ‘And you ain’t got a lick of sense in your head. Yer as dumb as a damn scooter.’” He put down his cup. “Well, Scooter would have given his soul to get our father’s attention. He took that stupid nickname to heart, telling everyone in creation that his name was now Scooter and I was Skeeter and they were all supposed to call us that from now on.”

“How old were you?”

“Eight.”

I couldn’t imagine an eight-year-old having to defend his mother. But by the time I was eight, I’d been pretty beaten down by my mother. Violet, who wasn’t much older, had stepped forward to defend me. “Why didn’t you put a stop to it?”

He released a bitter laugh. “Oh, I could’ve if I’d wanted to. I didn’t take shit from anybody, even back then. But I kept it.”

“Why?”

His eyes glittered with dark emotion. “As a reminder.”

“A reminder of what?”

“Of my failure.” He refilled his cup, then set the empty carafe on the table and flagged down the waitress, who’d had the sense to keep her distance. “We need more coffee.”

“Of course, Mr. Malcolm.”

I flashed Skeeter a look, surprised the waitress knew him by name, but then all the pieces clicked together. We were having a private conversation in a public place—a public place that remained open despite the fact it was infamous for having hardly any customers. “You own this place, don’t you?”

He shrugged and gave me a grin. “I own a lot of places.” His grin spread. “You’d be surprised. I make far more money from my legitimate businesses than my illegal ones.”

Obviously this place was one of his less profitable enterprises. “So why do it?”

He turned his grin on the waitress when she came over with a fresh carafe of coffee. “Sandra, this is Rose.”

“Nice to meet you, Miss Rose.”

“Oh, just Rose,” I said with a smile.

“It’s nice to see James with a lady friend,” she said, beaming at him. “He’s so focused on his business he says he doesn’t have time for a girlfriend.”

My eyes widened, but she walked away before I could explain we were just friends. “She knows your given name,” I observed.

He shrugged. “She knew me growing up.”

“So why did she call you Mr. Malcolm before?”

He grimaced. “She insists.” He took a sip of coffee. “Before we started this stroll down memory lane, we were debating the possibility of Kate Simmons being behind your kidnapping. Did you hear anything else to corroborate it?”

“Yeah,” I said, trying to switch gears. It was hard to associate the man I saw in this place with Skeeter Malcolm, crime boss. But it made sense that he wouldn’t want any of this to get out for fear of tarnishing his reputation. Which meant he trusted me. I wanted to thank him for that, but Skeeter didn’t respond to pretty words. He responded to action.

He lifted an eyebrow, waiting for me to continue.

“They said the woman who hired them also put up my bail money. And she’s not happy she doesn’t have it back yet.”

“That was poor planning on her part . . . or maybe not. If you were dead, the charges would be dropped. She could get her money back nice and quiet.”

“She must really hate Joe to bail me out with a million dollars just to have me killed.”

“It’s all sport for the Simmons family, although I confess that Joe seems to have been skipped over by the scheming gene. But his sister sure wasn’t. Looks like she’s all grown up and playing in the big leagues.” He looked into my eyes. “The question is what do you want to do about it?”

“What are you suggesting?”

“Rose, the woman tried to have you killed in a horrific way. You think we’re just going to let her get away with it?”

“We don’t know that for certain,” I protested. “Someone ran me off the road before she even got back into town.”

He snorted. “You think she just started tuning in when she showed up in town?” He shook his head. “Hell, if it’s revenge she wants, I guarantee you she’s been watching her brother since she left, or at least had someone doing it for her.”

“She had photos of me from last summer. Outside the courthouse with Joe and Mason. I figured she was photographing Mason because all the files on her table were about him.”

His eyelid ticked. “Which burned up in the fire.”

“Not necessarily. I stuffed most of them into a duffel bag.”

“Where is it?”

I cocked my head and gave him a devious grin. “Are we partners in this or not?”

His eyes lit up. “You’re really goin’ to hold me to that? You know I’m never partners with anyone—they either outrank me or they’re under me.”

For the first time since I’d learned how he felt about me, I heard a hint of innuendo.

“I refuse to be under you, so it’s either we’re equals or I outrank you.” My grin turned more innocent. “Your choice.”

He burst out laughing, then shook his head. “I have never met anyone quite like you, Rose Gardner.”

“I’m one of a kind. Now take it or leave it.” I held out my hand to shake on it.

His eyebrows lifted, and he grabbed my hand and held on. “Oh, I’m definitely taking.”

Chapter 11

I
pulled
my hand from his. “We need to lay some grounds rules.”

“In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve never been good with the rules,” he said with a wink.

“Well, there’s no time like the present to learn.”

“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

I sighed in exasperation. “Are we gonna speak in idioms all night, or are we gonna figure this out?”

“Fine, if you want to talk rules, then I have a few of my own.”

“What are they?”

“Ladies first.” He grinned, quite pleased with himself.

“You think you always have to get the last word, don’t you?” I asked, grabbing a napkin from the dispenser on the table. “Do you have a pen?”

“What for?”

“We’re putting this in writing.”

He laughed as he handed me an ink pen. “Is this a contract?”

“Of sorts. When we first met, you claimed you weren’t a man of your word. You’ve proved otherwise, but I feel a need for backup.” I started writing. “We, Rose Gardner and James Malcolm—”

His hand descended on mine.

“It’s your name, right? That’s what I’m calling you from now on, so get used to it. No more yoke of shame”—I snatched my hand loose— “agree to the following. Number one, we are equals and partners.” I glanced back at him, grinned at the scowl on his face, then returned my attention to the paper. “Number two, we share information even if we think it will hurt the other person.”

He leaned back in his seat, his arms crossed over his broad chest, and nodded solemnly. I suspected he didn’t think much could hurt him, so for him it was an easy concession.

“Three, we don’t solve a situation with violence unless we have no other choice.”

I glanced up, expecting an argument, but he simply nodded again.

“No argument?”

“When we’re working together? No. I’ll go your way.”

“Why?”

He didn’t uncross his arms, but his expression softened. “Because you couldn’t live with yourself otherwise, and I won’t ask you to compromise your principles.”

“But you’re . . .”

“A criminal?”

It was no secret, but we often glossed over his illegal activities.

“Let’s just say I’ve doing a lot of thinking lately,” he finally said. “I’m considering some restructuring.”

“What does that mean?”

“What that means has no relation to this agreement.” He sat up. “What else?”

I gave him a worried glance, then straightened my back. “Number four, we’re just friends.”

“Damn straight,” he said. “You had your chance at a business partnership, and you passed.” He winked. “Besides, what would your boyfriend think of you partnering up with a crime lord?”

A now familiar pain seized my heart, but there was no way I was going to tell Skeeter that Mason and I had broken up. I couldn’t help tearing up, so I kept my gaze on the list.

“I have one,” he said, his tone light. “
I
do the driving.”

“What?” I asked, snapping out of my funk. “You think I’m incapable of driving? You let Jed drive!”

“But Jed’s my underling. Are you saying you want to negate rule number one?” He tilted his head and grinned. “Fine, we’ll share the driving.” He pointed to the napkin. “Go on. Write it down.”

We worked our way through a list of thirty-five rules, some ridiculous, some important—Rule #16, that I was only allowed to take part in illegal activities if absolutely necessary, was included at Skeeter’s insistence.

“I’ve already got a criminal past, Rose. So if I get arrested, I’ll take whatever punishment Carter can’t get me out of.”

Just when I thought we were done, Skeeter took the napkin from me and wrote “Rule #36: Rose’s safety comes first. Always.”

“That’s hardly fair,” I said after I read it.

“Rose, give me this one concession. I gave you Rule #27: no complaining if you have to stop to pee.”

“That’s different, James.”

His eyes lit up. “I’m being a gentleman, and everyone knows that in the South, being a gentleman is more important than any contract.”

“No one ever accused you of bein’ a gentleman, James Malcolm,” I teased.

He shrugged. “Maybe Skeeter Malcolm is incapable of it, but that doesn’t mean James Malcolm is, too.”

But I knew that to be false. He’d been a perfect gentleman to me multiple times.

Before I realized what he was doing, he signed his name at the bottom. James Daniel Malcolm. For some reason, it brought tears to my eyes. Maybe because he was sitting in front of me as
himself
, and I knew the list of people who ever saw him like this was probably nonexistent.

He handed me the pen, and I signed my name next to his. Rose Anne Gardner. Suddenly the napkin reminded me of the list I’d written on a hot May night long ago. The list that had set the wheels of change in motion. Only, I’d made that one alone.

I tried not to think of the significance of that as I folded the napkin and carefully tucked it into my coat pocket. “We’ll find someplace safe to keep this.”

He nodded, then leaned forward. “Now that we’re partners, I’ll do some digging into Kate Simmons. See if I can find her bank accounts. See if there was a major withdrawal.”

“You can do that?”

He shrugged. “You just have to know the right people.”

Why hadn’t I thought of that before? Maybe his connections would help me solve another mystery.

“Do you think you can find me someone who can read shorthand?” I blurted out.

His eyebrows lifted in surprise.

“Remember me telling you about the book of evidence my birth mother had?”

“Joe Simmons took it.”

“Yeah, but a photocopy of one of the pages was hidden in a safe at the factory. Mason’s mother used to know shorthand, so we gave it to her to decipher. But she’s forgotten most of it, and even though she bought a book to help, she’s makin’ slow progress. All we know is that it mentions something about a bank account, a shed, the police chief, and a key.” I paused. “We found a key taped under one of Henry Buchanan’s desk drawers.”

“You think a journal from twenty-five years ago is gonna help us now?”

“I don’t know, but several people have died over that journal—it has to be important. Not for a minute do I believe the police chief’s death was a coincidence,” I said, prepared to fight him over it.

He held up his hands, palms forward. “Whoa. Wait a minute. What police chief’s death?”

“This happened about a week or so after J.R. came to Henryetta and threatened Dora in person. She went to see Henry Buchanan in his office with her baby—
me
—in her arms. According to her journal, she made a real ruckus and told him about J.R.’s threats. When he refused to do anything, she took off, but the factory burned down only days after that. Dora and Henry supposedly went to the police chief, Bill Niedermier, who said he was going to investigate the evidence they had on J.R., but he was murdered before anything came of it. Then my mother died in a car accident, and Henry hung himself.”

Skeeter’s eyes hardened. “Something stinks here.”

“I know for a fact that Beverly killed Dora. She confessed in the factory, but she swore she didn’t have anything to do with the police chief’s death, and I believe that Henry killed himself.”

“So Simmons had the police chief killed so his involvement would stay buried.”

“Or in this case, taped underneath a baby bed for twenty-five years.”

“We need the book.”

I shook my head. “I have no earthly idea where it could be, but the page is at least a start.”

He studied my plate as though it held the secrets of life before he lifted his gaze to mine. “Okay, I’ll ask my bookkeeper. She knows anything from me is strictly hush-hush. She’ll find the right person.”

I should have come to Skeeter in the first place, but there was no denying that Mason was the reason I hadn’t. It was further confirmation that I’d made the right decision to break up with him. I was going to do everything it took to bring J.R. Simmons to his knees and castrate him, and that was going to require some outside-the-law scheming.

My phone vibrated in my jeans pocket. I dug it out, cringing when I saw the name on the screen. I glanced into Skeeter’s guarded eyes. “It’s Joe.”

“What’s your gut instinct on that? Answer or let it go to voice mail?”

“After what went on at the square, he’ll waste time and manpower if he thinks I’m in danger.”

He gave a curt nod. “Answer it.”

I hit accept and tried to sound breezy. “Hey, Joe.”

“Rose, where are you?” He sounded anxious and exhausted.

I glanced at Skeeter. “Out.”

“A lot’s been going on downtown, some of it close to your office.”

“Well, no need to be worried. I’m not there.”

“I think someone is after you again. And I think it has to do with my father.”

“Why would you think that?”

He paused. “Because my father escaped tonight.”

Joe was only confirming what Skeeter had already surmised, but a shiver still ran down my back.

“How did your dad escape?” I asked, locking eyes with Skeeter.

His face hardened.

“During the transfer. They were ambushed while they were unloading him from the ambulance in front of the county jail. Two deputies and an EMT were shot.”

“Oh, God,” I choke out. “Who were the deputies?”

“I’m not allowed to say until we’ve notified the next of kin.”

“Who were the deputies, Joe?” I asked, afraid of the answer.

“Rose.”

“Is Randy Miller okay?”

He hesitated. “He’s in the hospital. Last I heard, they were taking him to surgery, but they aren’t sure if he’s going to make it.”

I squeezed my eyes closed. “Thank you for being honest with me.”

“Why are you asking about Randy?”

Of course. He had no idea that we were friends. “He’s always been so nice to me. I hate that this happened to him.”

“I’d love to spare the manpower to watch you, but I’m—”

“I’m fine.”

“Mason’s still at his office. I know you two are fighting right now, but maybe you should go stay with him anyway.”

“Yeah,” I said, resting my forehead on my hand. “I’ll give him a call.”

“Rose, whatever you do, be careful. I know I don’t have to tell you that my father is dangerous.”

“Thanks.” I hung up and put my phone on the table.

“A friend of yours get hurt?”

I sucked in a breath and wiped tears from the corners of my eyes. “Yeah. He’s in surgery.” I gave him a hard look. “How ironic that I’m friends with people on both sides of the law. You. Jed. Randy. Joe. Mason.” My voice broke on Mason’s name. “You’re all sworn enemies, but I’d be devastated if anything happened to any of you.”

“It’s like I told you in the Gems parking lot when it was burning to the ground. You don’t see black and white. You see gray. People aren’t all good and bad. You have a way of bringing out the good.”

I shook my head, thinking of J.R. Simmons, who didn’t have a good bone in his body. “No. Not with everyone.”

“Most people. That’s what I like most about you . . . other than your determination to do what you think is right, even if everyone else around you thinks you’re wrong. And the fact that you stand your ground, even with a scary asshole like me. You’re a woman of principles who wants to do the right thing.” He slid out of the booth and stood, surprising me by tossing a hundred dollar bill on the table. “Let’s go do the right thing.”

As he ushered me out of the diner, I kept thinking about that hundred-dollar bill he’d left for the waitress in the restaurant he owned.

And I wondered if he was more like me than he thought.

BOOK: Thirty-Six and a Half Motives: Rose Gardner Mystery #9 (Rose Gardner Mystery Series)
2.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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