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Mike glanced around the precinct before slamming the door shut and turning to Isabella abruptly. Crossing his arms over his broad chest, he cocked one brow and asked, “Who the hell are you?”
“Excuse me?” she replied with feign confusion.
Mike offered her a tight smile, unconvinced by her innocent act. “You heard me. Who are you? And don’t tell me that you’re just the average reporter looking to get a juicy story because I’m not buying it.”
Isabella stared at him for a long moment, silently coming to terms with the fact that she owed this man the truth. He was too smart to believe that she had just accidentally stumbled upon the personal files of Roger Blake and just happened to come across the particular information she had just shared with him.
“Fine.” She threw her arms in the air and sat down in a chair. Taking in a deep breath, she braced herself for his reaction to the truth. “I am here to investigate Roger Blake.”
He laughed, an ironic chuckle that was meant as an insult. “To investigate Roger Blake?”
Isabella’s expression remained neutral, giving nothing away. She didn’t care if this man insulted her or laughed at her. What she was telling him was the truth, whether he chose to believe it or not.
“I’ll bite,” he bit out in a sarcastic voice. “Why are you here to investigate Roger Blake?”
“Ever hear the name Thomas Cahill?”
“Yeah. He was that D.C. politician who got caught having an affair with an underage prostitute.”
“That D.C. politician is my father,” she replied in a bland voice. “And he was set up. By Roger Blake. I just haven’t been able to find out who paid Roger Blake yet.”
“How do you know he was set up?”
“I know my father. And he would never do anything like that. He loves my mother. He would never do anything to hurt her.”
“Good men fall all of the time,” Mike retorted with a casual shrug of his shoulders.
“Yes. But not my father. Roger Blake destroyed him, destroyed his life. His career is ruined, his marriage to my mother shattered. I know Roger Blake had something to do with it. Now, I just need to know who paid him to tarnish my father’s reputation. I promised Nathan that I would help him figure out who killed those girls. He promised me that he would help me find out who paid Roger Blake to destroy my father.”
“And how do you know Nathan?”
“We knew a few of the same people in New York City and he and I went out a few times.”
“So it’s personal between the two of you?”
“It was… and never that personal. We’re friends, plain and simple
“How did you get pulled into the Ambrose investigation? You just doing Nathan a favor?”
“That’s right. I promised him I’d keep an eye on everyone at The Gazette and report anything suspicious to him. Which, I have done. But today, I hacked into Blake’s personal computer files, hoping to find something tangible I could use against him, when I found the files on those four women.” She took in a long breath. “Look, Roger Blake isn’t a volatile criminal. He’s a ruthless man with no morals and no conscience. But something doesn’t add up here. Murder isn’t his thing. Blackmail and bribery is. He doesn’t do anything unless he is getting paid to.”
“Then why does he have pictures of the four victims in his computer?”
“I don’t know. You’re the detective. You figure it out.”
Mike scratched his forehead as unanswered questions began to bombard him. There was no way that Roger Blake would have left a trail so completely obvious and incriminating. But if Roger didn’t create those files, then who did? Was someone trying to frame him? Or did he have something to do with the killings? What would a man like Roger Blake have to gain from killing those four women? Mike shook his head as he formed his thoughts aloud. “This doesn’t add up. Why would the man commit a crime and then keep incriminating evidence on his computer for anyone to find?”
“Not just anyone.” Isabella corrected. “A computer genius such as myself.”
Mike rolled his eyes and gave her a scathing grin. “Are you through patting yourself on the back?”
Isabella pretended to silently contemplate the question before a bright smile erupted across her face. “Quite through. Now you can work with me or against me. But if you work against me, it will make things much harder. Because one way or the other, I intend to keep my promise to Nathan just as he will to me.”
Mike sighed. “Fine. We’ll work together. But it will be my rules.”
Isabella groaned and stood up, raking over him with scathing eyes. “I don’t play by rules, Mike… ever.”
He arose and grabbed her by the arm just as she was about to leave, forcing her to look at him. “There is such a thing as compromise.”
Raising one brow, a slow smile spread across her face. “It’s something I’m familiar with.”
“Good. Let’s figure out how to do it.”
* * * *
“How do you know Mike?” he asked in a strained voice
“We all grew up together,” was Jessie’s casual reply. “He was two years ahead of us in high school, but we always saw him over at Karen’s house hanging out with her older brother Keith.” Jessie watched him for a moment, noticed the way his brow furrowed as he digested what she had just told him. “You mean he really didn’t tell you that he knew the four of us?”
“No. He didn’t.”
“Well, it does make sense. Deatsville has never really had a crime like this before. I imagine he wouldn’t tell you because if you knew you would have probably taken him off of the case.”
He scratched his chin reflectively. “That’s true.”
“He is taking this whole mess well, though.”
Nathan dropped his hand as his eyes shot to hers. “What do you mean by that?”
“In high school, he dated both Maria and Sherry. Then over the last few weeks he had been getting really close to Karen. I thought that they might even be starting a relationship. He had been hanging around the house incessantly, always around trying to fix things or any other excuse he could come up with to be there. Karen was excited. She was happy about the idea that she had actually found a man with a bright future ahead of him that was interested in her. My roommates always had the worst taste in men. They would bring home the biggest creeps on the planet.”
“Funny,” Nathan mused. “Mike didn’t mention any of this to me.”
“Why would he? You just admitted that you would have taken him off of the case had you known that he was close to all of us.”
“Exactly how close are the two of you?” It was a simple query, nothing more. There was no hint of jealousy in his voice, just a cop trying to acquire all of the facts… Now if he could only convince himself of that he would be just fine.
“I wouldn’t say we are close. We’ve been casual acquaintances over the years. He and I only started really getting to know one another when he began hanging around with Karen so much.”
“So you two never…” What was he getting himself into here?
A slow smile spread across Jessie’s face. “Never what?” She knew exactly what he was hinting at but was having way too much fun at his expense.
Nathan changed his stance, completely uncomfortable with where the conversation had lead. “You know,” he urged, not wanting to have to ask the question aloud.
“No. I don’t know.”
He groaned and shoved a hand through his hair. “Were you two ever intimate?” he muttered.
Her smile broadened. “Is this the cop asking or the man that is completely infatuated with me?”
Nathan took a step back and stared at her for a long moment. “So you think I’m completely infatuated with you?” he asked with a smirk.
Jessie considered his words for a moment before she took a step forward, closing the distance between them in one stride. “Aren’t you?”
“If you want Mike up here, just say the word. I’d be more than happy to let him take my place.”
She cocked her head to the side and gave him an assessing glance, her eyes inspecting him from head to toe before she laughed. “All I have to do is say the word?”
“Is that what you want?” Nathan demanded.
“What I want is for you to stop treating me like a child. Stop acting like I’m going to break. I’m not made of glass.” Without thinking, she reached one hand up and cupped his cheek. “And I want you to admit that you’re attracted to me… that I’m not imagining it.” Jessie leaned forward and pressed her lips against his check, letting her mouth slide across his jaw line and capture his earlobe between her teeth.
Nathan let out a low growl. “This is a dangerous game you’re playing, Miss Porter.”
“Is it?” she whispered against his neck, her mouth covering his flesh.
“Oh yeah. You’re about to start something you won’t be able to finish.”
“That’s where you’re wrong, Sheriff. I never start something I’m not willing to finish.”
“Jessie,” he breathed, feeling her lips trail over the tender flesh of his neck to nibble at his throat.
“Admit it,” she insisted with bated breath. “Admit that you’re attracted to me.”
Her hands spread across his chest as her mouth continued its assault on his neck. Nathan knew that this was the point where he should listen to reason instead of allowing himself to become victim to his attraction to her. But when her fingers found the buttons on his shirt and slowly began to unfasten them, reason was the furthest thing from his mind.
Nathan closed his eyes and dropped his head back as she pushed the cotton away from his skin and lowered her mouth to his chest, her tongue sliding across his torso to his stomach. His hands tangled through her hair and grasped the back of her head, gently urging her to stand up. Without giving her a chance to straighten, he leaned forward and captured her lips with his own.
Jessie abruptly pulled away from him and cocked one brow, a smirk planted on her face. “Un-unh. I want you to say it.”
“Jessie,” he sighed and took a step back. “I can’t do this. We can’t do this.”
Jessie moved closer, lifted her eyes to meet his, and frowned. “I assure you… we can. The only thing I’m not sure about is why you are so damn scared to let your guard down. Why are you so afraid to be attracted to me?” And with that, she turned from him and walked back inside of the cabin.
* * * *
“Thank you for taking the time to see me,” Mike offered as he took the seat across from Roger Blake.
“I’m always at the mercy of The Deatsville Sheriff Department,” Roger replied in a cocky voice.
Mike stared at the man sitting across from him. Roger Blake was exactly what he expected, right down to his expensive suit and tie. The man had an air about him, an aura of confidence and poise. Roger Blake’s stature wasn’t intimidating, but his demeanor was more than daunting. He had a calm and cool fašade that seemed unbreakable.
“Well, I apologize for bothering you all the same,” Mike replied in the friendliest voice he could conjure. “It’s just, we’re kind of at a standstill with the murder investigation and I’m going back and re-interviewing a few of the people the sheriff has already spoken to, seeing if we’ve missed anything thus far.”
“I understand,” Roger nodded, his composed expression never faltering. “However, I am afraid this will have to be a quick interview. We are working against a deadline and I am frightfully busy.”
“Well then I’ll be quick and direct.” Mike reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a small black notebook, opening it up a few pages and glancing over his handwritten notes before he turned his attention back to Roger Blake. “Miss Porter has been working for you for quite a few months. Correct?”
“In those months, did you happen to notice her being especially close to anyone around the office?”
Roger cleared his throat, his gaze never leaving Mike’s face. “Everyone that works at The Gazette is a closely knit group. We’re like family here and we’re all incredibly intimate. As much as I try to discourage relationships from blooming among colleagues, it is quite impossible to know what goes on without my knowledge.”
“I can understand that.” This man was already aggravating Mike. All he wanted was a clear and precise answer to his question. Yet, this man was going all the way around without actually answering him. “But what I want to know is did you notice Miss Porter being close to anyone in particular, someone she may have confided in?”
“No. Not personally. Although, I was informed that she and Alan Ginnis had dinner a few times together.” Roger shrugged. “It isn’t a crime for employees to fraternize outside of business hours, just frowned upon.”
“Alan Ginnis?” Mike’s brow drew together. “That’s your personal assistant. Correct?”
“Yes. A very bright young man with a brilliant future ahead of him.” Roger pasted a generic smile on his face. “Unfortunately, he finds himself in an awkward position with some of the female employees quite frequently.”
“What do you mean?” Mike leaned back in his chair and cocked his head to the side, unclear of what exactly the man was trying to imply.
“Only that Mr. Ginnis might not have quite as many dates if he wasn’t my personal assistant,” Roger explained with an arrogant tilt of his chin.
Mike wanted to laugh at this man’s cocky disposition. How pompous could one person be?
As if reading his mind, Roger quickly added, “I’m not conceited, if that is what you’re thinking. I’m only being honest. I am a man of authority, the man who makes the major decisions concerning which articles get published and which ones do not. This is a very competitive business. Not only do my journalists compete with other periodicals in circulation but with one another. Only so many stories are front-page quality and everyone in the journalism profession knows that the front page is where they want to be. Many disillusion themselves into thinking that if they get in good with the personal assistant; they jump ahead of the competition and get in good with me. Unfortunately, that’s not the way it works here.”
“No. I guess not.” Mike continued to study Roger Blake openly. He was pretty sure the man sitting across from him was well aware of Mike’s instant dislike for him. It wasn’t as if Mike was going out of his way to hide anything. More importantly, it didn’t matter whether or not he liked the man. His only job was to get answers from him, try to rattle him in hopes that he would divulge something that could be of use. “I’m sure you’re completely professional and unbiased when considering which article gets the glory and which article goes into the shredder.” Mike couldn’t contain his sarcasm, or his aversion for the man sitting in front of him.
Roger smiled, his hands steepled beneath his chin. “Completely professional,” he agreed as he returned Mike’s stare.
“So then the stories I’ve heard about some of your star reporters sleeping their way to the top are completely bogus?” Mike offered in what he thought was a teasing voice. However, the look on Roger’s face was unwavering.
“I am a married man, Officer Taylor,” Roger said in a calm, almost chastising voice. “I love my wife dearly and would never do anything to hurt her. I’m quite sure whoever is spreading such vicious lies is doing it out of anger and resentment because I put their article in the slush pile.”
“The slush pile?”
“That is what editors call the pile that is of no use to us. Just because a journalist gets a story doesn’t mean that we will use that story. If someone else has already told it or if it just isn’t news worthy, we push it to the side. We only print what we know our readers want to see and unfortunately, a lot of the articles that go through my hands aren’t quite up to standard. Therefore, they are pushed aside and the journalist is encouraged to go out and find something that we can actually use. A journalist takes criticism very seriously. They’re all ambitious and quite cocky, thinking that their article is the best. When they find out that all of their hard work still doesn’t make the grade, they take it personal. I can’t say I blame them. But, that’s just the way it is.”
Mike silently sized the man up before asking his next question. He tilted his head to the side and smiled. “Jessica Porter is a very attractive woman. You can’t honestly tell me that you never even looked at her with an impure thought or two. We’re both men, Mr. Blake… and married or not, we both still can’t help admiring a beautiful woman now and again.”
“Jessica is a very beautiful girl. But my relationship with her was strictly professional. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Mike’s smile broadened. “You wouldn’t or Jessie wouldn’t?”
Roger placed his hands on the desk in front of him, lacing his fingers together. “Is that all?”
“One more thing,” Mike said, tilting his head to the side and silently debating on how to ask his last question, the question that he hoped would get a reaction out of the gentleman sitting before him. So far, Roger Blake had remained calm and collected. The man had an answer for everything and that annoyed Mike. No one had an answer for everything, especially this pompous bastard sitting before him. He only hoped his last question rattled the composed Mr. Blake. “Where were you on the night of the murders?”
Roger glared at the officer for a long moment before a brilliant smile covered his face. “I don’t usually remember where I am from week to week. My secretary would be more capable of telling you my whereabouts. But you’re in luck. It just so happens that the night in question, I was at the Gable Room, having dinner with my wife. It was our twenty-eighth wedding anniversary.”
“And later that night, after you had dinner with your wife?”
Roger smirked. “You may have to ask Ms. Blake to be sure, but I’m quite certain I was at home all night, making love to my wife.” He allowed his eyes to roam scathingly over Mike before his confident smile marred his expression. “Now, if that is all, I really do have a lot of work to do before we go to print.”
The man was too good, had all of the right answers. Mike stood up, despising this man in all of his smug satisfaction.
A sly smile spread over Roger’s face. “By the way, if you see my star reporter around will you tell her I said hello and that I don’t appreciate someone snooping through my personal files.”
He gave Roger Blake a curt nod and said a quick thank you before letting himself out of the office.
* * * *
Isabella twisted the pasta around her fork absently as she smiled at the man sitting across from her at the table. Alan Ginnis squirmed a bit, as if he was unsure about whether or not her intentions were innocent.
“I assure you, Alan. I don’t bite,” Isabella offered in what she thought was her most seductive voice. “Well,” she laughed, “not unless you want me to.”
That got his attention, causing his gaze to clash with hers, that uneasiness in his expression to become more obvious.
Isabella chuckled harder as she shoved the bite of food into her mouth.
“I have to admit, I was a bit shocked when you asked me out to lunch,” Alan admitted in a bashful voice.
“Why is that?”
He cleared his throat nervously and looked away, still so nervous and unsure. “If you think I have any clout where Mr. Blake is concerned, you’re wrong. He doesn’t give a rat’s ass about my opinion.”
“Alan,” she crooned. “I’m not trying to get to Mr. Blake through you. Trust me. If I wanted to get in good with the boss man, I have other ways of getting my point across. The truth is, I just didn’t feel like eating alone today and I thought that you might be decent company to keep with.”
“Why is that?” he stammered.
“Oh, I don’t know, Alan. Probably because you are the only sincere person I’ve met in the office. Well, one of the two only sincere people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting at The Gazette. The other one being Jessie Porter.”
“Yeah,” Alan muttered, offering her a weak smile. “I miss Jessie.”
“Me, too. I wonder how she’s doing?”
“I don’t know. I heard she might be coming around.”
“Really?” Isabella set her fork down and reached for her water glass, taking a small sip before placing it back on the table and giving Alan her attention once again. “I’ll have to do a little digging and see if that’s true or not.” Leaning in closer, she whispered, “You know I would love to be a fly on the wall the moment she wakes up.”
“Why is that?”
“Because the word is, she saw who killed her roommates before she was stabbed. The poor girl wasn’t meant to survive. And if she does, then someone is going to be going through a lot of trouble to make sure she doesn’t talk. Don’t you think?”
“Yeah, well… That’s if she even wakes up.”
“That’s true. I mean, she may never wake up and then, the sheriff’s department will never know who killed those girls. Could you imagine someone just getting away with murder like that?”
“I’m sure the sheriff’s department will figure it out. With all the technology they’ve got, they could go off of something so simple as a strand of hair and match DNA and all that good stuff.”
Isabella laughed. “You watch too much television, Alan.”
He chuckled as well. “Maybe I do.”
“The thing is, the sheriff’s department doesn’t even have something so simple as a strand of hair to go by. My informant tells me that they have absolutely no evidence, no clues. They’re relying on Jessica Porter waking up and being able to tell them who did it.”
Alan began to squirm around in his chair again, refusing to meet her stare. “Well, it’ll be interesting to see them figure this thing out.”
“I agree. It’s kind of nice to think that the cops don’t have all the answers for once.”
“Maybe they have more answers than they’re willing to tell.”
“Maybe.” Isabella glanced around the restaurant, as if looking to see if anyone was close enough to eavesdrop before leaning over the table again and whispering, “Can I tell you a secret?”
Alan leaned closer to her and nodded, an enthusiastic glint in his eye. “What?”
“You have to promise me that this will stay between you and I.”
“I promise,” he replied without hesitation.
“The sheriff’s department does have one clue, one small piece of evidence. And my source tells me that their suspect is someone from The Gazette. But, I haven’t been able to find out who they suspect yet.”
Alan sat back in his chair and stared at Isabella in amazement. “Someone we work with?”
She nodded. “Yes. Kind of puts things into perspective. I’ll tell you this. I wouldn’t trust anyone right now. Hell, I don’t know if I should even trust you.”
“Trust me?” he said with a humorless laugh. “I’m the last person you should worry about trusting.”
“What do you mean, Alan?”
“Come on, Isabella. You know what role I play in that office. I’m Roger Blake’s lackey, his little errand boy. If I was going to kill anyone, I would have taken out our editor in chief a while ago.”
Isabella laughed, in spite of herself. “It makes you wonder who could have done it though, doesn’t it?”
“I don’t know. Jessie pretty much kept to herself.”
“Yeah. But you two were quite chummy, weren’t you?”
“Only because we understood one another.”
“What do you mean?”
Alan shook his head, not sure if he was willing to divulge everything to this woman whom he didn’t even know he could trust yet. “Let’s just say that Jessie and I connected on a level in which I’ve never been able to connect with another woman. She knew things about me that even my parents don’t know. We were friends and she was confident that that was all I ever wanted from her.” Alan ran a hand over his hair and sighed. “Jessie never talked about it, but I knew it was hard for her. She was a pretty girl. Men usually didn’t approach her without underlying intentions.”
“But not you?”
“No,” he replied quickly. “And she knew that. Which was why we got along so well.”
“I’m just curious. You weren’t interested in her on a romantic level?”
“How come? I mean, you are right. She was and still is a very beautiful girl.”
“I don’t disagree. But… let’s just say that she wasn’t my type and leave it at that.”
“If she wasn’t your type… then what is your type, Alan?”
He offered her a mischievous grin before he chuckled. “Let’s just say I’m attracted to a more masculine type of person.”
A slow grin spread across her face. “Alan, are you telling me that you are gay?”
He nodded, barely able to hide his grin.
“I would have never guessed.”
“Exactly. Neither would anyone else because that’s the way I want it. I haven’t exactly come out yet.”
“Holy shit,” Isabella chuckled. Her expression sobered, her gaze meeting Alan’s. “Let me ask you a question. Do you have any knowledge of Roger Blake giving some of the female employees a little extra one on one time outside of work?”
“He makes a habit out of it.”
“What about Jessica? Did they…”
“No,” he answered quickly. “But he tried.”
“She turned him down?”
“Turned him down flat.”
“What did Roger do?”
“He wasn’t happy about it. The man usually gets what he wants, if you haven’t noticed.” Alan cocked his head to the side and said in a soft voice, “He settled for the next best thing.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m not supposed to know this, but I accidentally intercepted a phone call one afternoon. Roger couldn’t get Jessie, so he went after one of her roommates. Maria Melendez.”