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Nathan walked into the cluttered office of Roger Blake, editor in chief of The Gazette. The man looked up, setting his pen down and clasping his hands together on top of the desk. He looked to be in his late forties to early fifties, a full head of salt and pepper hair and amber colored eyes hidden behind wireless framed glasses, his build sinewy and trim.
“Can I help you, Sheriff Benson?” he asked in a calm, cool voice.
Nathan took a seat across from the man, crossing his ankle over his knee as he stared at Roger Blake. “Being in the newspaper business, I’m sure you heard about what happened to one of your employees this morning.”
“Ah, yes. Miss Porter. I was mortified when I heard that she had been stabbed and her roommates murdered. But then again, we knew we couldn’t keep that great big world of murderers and rapists out of our perfect little town forever. Tell me, how is Jessica?”
“She’s holding her own,” was all that Nathan was willing to give the man. Something about Roger Blake’s calm and composed demeanor set off about a million warning signals in his head.
“It’s a shame. Such a sweet and intelligent girl destroyed in the prime of her life.”
“Yes, it is,” Nathan conceded.
“So… any idea who did this?”
“Unfortunately, I can’t discuss that with you.”
“I see. Always an officer of the law.”
“Always a journalist at heart,” Nathan countered, already disliking this man.
“Touché,” Roger amended. “I understand you have some questions you wanted to ask me.”
“Just a few.” Nathan withdrew his notebook and pen, poised to write. “How long has Miss Porter been working for you?”
“About six months. I hired her on the spot.”
“Why is that?”
“She’s bright, intelligent… and she has the potential to go far in this business.”
“But I understand that she was looking more along the lines of a job at the university.”
“They’re all looking for something bigger and better. There are too many false expectations for our college grads these days. Eventually, they realize that their goals have been set too high. They find that here at The Gazette, we offer them stability and a wonderful future full of opportunities and advancement. It’s not their first choice, but most of them do stick around.”
Nathan cocked his head to the side, studying the man sitting before him. He seemed cocky and arrogant, cool and collected. Roger Blake seemed like the kind of man that could talk his way through anything. And that was exactly the kind of person Nathan despised. “Did she have any close friends among her colleagues?” he finally asked.
“We’re all friends here, Sheriff Benson. But if you’re asking me if Miss Porter had any ‘special’ relationships with any of her colleagues, I’d have to say I don’t know. My employees’ personal lives are just that… personal. Did I ever talk to Jessica? On a daily basis. Did she ever discuss her life outside of work with me? No. Did she have any enemies among her peers here? That’s a question I cannot answer.”
Nathan sat back in the chair, staring at the man with deep-rooted dislike. Roger Blake was obviously an arrogant ass that thought he had all the answers and felt that he was above this line of questioning. That was just fine with Nathan. He didn’t really have anything else for the man at the moment. But he would be back.
“Is that all?” Roger asked a little pompously.
“That’s all for now. I’d like to take a look around Miss Porter’s personal work area if that is alright.”
“Sure. I’ll have my assistant show you the way.” Roger hit a button to summon his secretary.
“Yes, Mr. Blake,” the woman that had shown Nathan in replied over the speaker.
“Would you have Alan meet Sheriff Benson outside of my office? Tell him that the sheriff wants to have a look around Miss Porter’s desk.”
“Right away, Mr. Blake.”
Roger smiled with feign sincerity as he unclasped his hands. “Good luck with the investigation. I hope you find the person responsible.”
Nathan only nodded as he stood up and left the office. Outside of the door, a tall, lanky man with russet hair and brown eyes greeted him with an outstretched hand and an awkward smile.
“Alan Ginnis,” he offered as Nathan shook his hand. “Right this way.”
Nathan followed the man through the maze of cubicles, watching him from the corner of his eye. Alan Ginnis seemed tense and anxious, was unable to hide the stiffness in his gait.
“It’s a shame what happened to Jessica,” the man offered as they strode through the building as if desperately needing something to say in order to break the silence.
“Did you know her well?” Nathan asked, cocking one eyebrow as Alan glanced his way.
“Not super well. Mostly, we just walked out of the building late together every night. We both got off around the same time, so I would walk her to her car to make sure she got on her way safely.”
“Did you work late together all of the time?”
“Yep. Every night. We were usually the last two out of the building.”
“What about last night?”
The man stopped, shifted his eyes around the office before settling his gaze back on Nathan. “Last night, I had to skip out of work early.”
“Why is that?”
“I had a date,” Alan replied quickly. Stopping at a desk, he turned to Nathan. “This is it. If you need anything else, don’t hesitate. I’ve got to get back to work. We’re working on a deadline, you know.”
Nathan watched the man retreat, noticed how Alan Ginnis glanced over his shoulder nervously before disappearing through the sea of cubicles. There was something about the way the man had frozen when Nathan asked him if he had been here late last night. He almost looked like a deer in headlights, not sure whether to stand still and let the oncoming car plow into him or take off running.
This was the hardest part of a case when backed against a wall with no evidence and no suspects. Everyone was suspicious at this point and no one could be overlooked. That included the nervous Alan Ginnis and the ever-pompous Roger Blake.
Nathan sat down in the chair behind the desk and instantly began to rummage through each drawer. Nothing was out of the ordinary. Just pens, rubber bands, paper clips, staples, and a secret stash of candy bars in the bottom drawer. On the top of the desk were piles of file copies, a computer, and a picture of Jessica and an older woman, which Nathan figured had to be the grandmother. He flipped through the files, looking for any kind of clue where there was none to be found. Everything on the desk was just as it should have been, which made him queasy. One day had almost passed and he was not even a single step closer to figuring this thing out. He had no suspects, no evidence, and no witnesses except for the woman clinging to life. The brunt of it all was frustrating.
Nathan heard his cell phone ring and quickly pulled it out of his pocket, bringing it to his ear. “Benson.”
“Nate, it’s Mike. I’m on my way back to the station. I stopped by the house to take another look around.”
“Yeah,” Nathan prompted, hoping Mike had found something that had been missed.
“I want to run something by you.”
“Shoot.” Nathan stood up and started walking towards the door, wanting to be out of earshot for anyone who might be listening. He lifted his hand to Roger Blake’s secretary as he walked to the exit of the building.
“Okay. I was thinking that maybe we’re looking for more than one person. I mean, how could one man tie all three women up, rape them, and stab them without a fight? There’s no evidence of a struggle. Secondly, it had to be someone that they knew, someone that they trusted. There was no sign of forced entry and the women had obviously been awake because all of their beds were still made.”
Interesting, Nathan thought to himself. He pushed through the door and started towards his SUV. “Okay. So we need to start checking with all of their acquaintances. Find out everyone they knew or had come into contact with and go from there.”
“I agree. That’s why I’ve already started talking to close friends of the three roommates. Still, it doesn’t narrow down our search.”
Nathan thought quietly for a moment, digesting the information Mike had just thrust upon him. Perhaps it was an acquaintance, someone they trusted. And maybe there had been more than one person. But…
“Have the coroner run a blood test on the three victims. See if there is any trace of drugs in their systems. More than one person seems logical, but… even if there had been more than one doing the killing, how did they keep the women quiet? I mean a neighbor or something had to hear them scream. Right?”
“Unless they were so doped up they didn’t know what in the hell was going on.”
* * * *
Roger Blake stared at his computer screen, unable to focus. His mind was floating somewhere else, somewhere far beyond work. The mental image of Jessica’s face kept dancing through his mind, the girl with the pretty blue eyes and the amazing laugh.
He had hired her on the spot not only because she was bright and intelligent but also because she was a beautiful girl. Roger wasn’t proud to admit that, but it was the truth. He had found his gaze wandering over her tight little body several times, from those killer long legs to that amazing ass.
Roger shook his head, trying to clear the vision of the girl out of his mind. He had been longing to get inside of her pants since the second she had walked into his office. And each time he had tried, she had turned him down flat. That had pissed him off. Most of the women here knew what a catch he was and would have taken him up on his offer almost immediately. But not Jessica. She was too moral and virtuous to have an affair with a married man. That alone made him admire her and want her all the more.
He inhaled with frustration, knowing that he should concentrate on his work. Yet, her face couldn’t be washed away from his thoughts… no matter how hard he tried.
* * * *
Alan Ginnis stood by the window and watched the sheriff pull away from the building. He breathed a sigh of relief. There was something about the way the man had looked at him when he had admitted that he had left work early last night that made him nervous. He should have lied and said that he was here all night. But then, lying would have meant that he was trying to cover up something. That was, if his lie had been found out.
What was he thinking? Of course his lie would have been uncovered. Sheriff Nathan Benson had a way of seeing straight through people and would have seen straight through him. What if the man started snooping around? What if he started checking everyone’s alibis for last night? The sheriff would find out that Alan didn’t have an alibi. There was no one that could prove where he was last night, at least no one he would want Nathan Benson talking to.
There was no need to be paranoid. No one was going to ask where he was last night. No one would care. Or would they?
* * * *
Mike busted into the office, causing Nathan to glance up from the pictures he had been staring at for the last three hours. The young man slapped a piece of paper down on the desk and plopped into one of the wooden chairs across from Nathan.
Nathan reached over and picked up the paper. “What’s this?”
“The toxicology report.”
“So fast?” Nathan asked, cocking one brow as his eyes scanned over the report.
“I think those guys are just as eager to figure this one out as we are.” Mike leaned forward. “All three women were doped up on sedatives and their blood alcohol level was around .18.”
“Interesting. So they were drugged and intoxicated.”
“Yep.” Mike grimaced. “It seems with everything in their systems, they didn’t know what was happening until it was too late.”
“I still think that our murderer was an acquaintance and I still think that there was more than one person involved.”
Nathan tossed the paper back on his desk and twisted his neck to work out the kinks. “I have to agree.” Glancing back down at the pictures, he tilted his head to the side.
“How did it go at The Gazette?”
“Well, let’s see,” he mused, a wry grin on his face. “I had the pleasure of meeting Richard Blake, and let me tell you, the guy has a winning personality… a nice mixture of conceit and arrogance.”
Mike chuckled. “Any one stick out?”
Nathan rubbed his hands over his tired eyes. “Everyone sticks out. Everyone is suspicious. Hell, everyone I’ve met could be a possible suspect.”
Just then, Penny Dyson, the general receptionist and dispatcher for the precinct knocked on the door and poked her head inside. Penny was somewhere in her sixties, with red hair streaked in gray that remained in a constant beehive and thick black-rimmed glasses that covered dark green eyes. She had been with the Sheriff’s Department for years upon years, was the foundation that held this department together and everyone knew it. “Sheriff, there’s a man here to see you.”
“Send him in, Penny.” She simply nodded and backed out of the door.
Mike stood up and walked to the door, taking his cue to leave. He passed by the man as he entered the office, scanning him with his eyes before exiting the room.
Nathan stood up as well and raked his eyes over the tall, muscular man. He looked to be about Nathan’s age with dark brown hair and steely blue eyes that darted around the office nervously.
“Have a seat, Mr.--?”
“Marchand… Steve Marchand.”
The man sat down, Nathan following suit and taking the seat behind his desk. He leaned back in his chair and crossed his ankle over his knee. “What brings you by?”
“I heard about what happened this morning, the three women that were murdered over on Ambrose Drive.”
“It seems news travels fast no matter how hard we try to keep things quiet.”
The man grimaced. “That’s a small town for you. Actually, I heard what happened through Cynthia Dawson.”
“Ah, the girl from this morning,” Nathan sighed with recognition.
“Look… I didn’t want to come here but she insisted that I do.”
“Okay,” Nathan prompted, hoping this guy wasn’t wasting his time.
“Jess and I went out a couple of times a few months back. It was never anything serious, although I can’t deny that I wanted it to be. Anyway, the point is, I met up with her about two days ago out in the courtyard having lunch and we started talking. I asked her how she was and she said she was fine. But… she mentioned offhandedly that she thought someone had been following her the last week or so.”
“Did she say why she thought someone was following her?”
“Actually, she laughed it off saying that it was probably her imagination, that she was a big ball of nerves with the last few months of school coming up and her term paper she hadn’t even started on. Still, Jessie said when she had been walking to her car the night before; she had heard footsteps mimicking hers. Yet, when she stopped and turned around there was no one there.”
“Okay.” Nathan didn’t know if that was anything useful or not, but he would keep it in mind as the investigation continued.
“There’s more. Maria Melendez, one of Jessie’s roommates, was seeing this guy that gave Jess the creeps. She had told me a few weeks ago that she had come out of the shower one Saturday morning and found him lurking outside of the door. It really freaked her out but she never said anything to Maria.”
“Why didn’t she say anything to Maria?”
“I don’t know. But I have a theory.”
“Okay. What’s your theory?”
“The few times I went over to that house, Maria was always with a different man. And the man she was always with would have his eye on Jessica from the moment she walked in. Which is not surprising. Maria was a pretty woman, but she couldn’t hold a candle to Jess. I don’t think anything was ever said, but I could tell Maria felt defensive and almost territorial around the men she brought over.”
“Why? Did Miss Porter ever give Miss Melendez a reason to be distrustful?”
“Not that I’m aware of. I mean Jessie pretty much disliked most of the men her roommates brought into that house. She said that all three of the girls could do better.”
“Did you ever meet this mystery man?”
“Did you happen to catch the guy’s name?” he asked hopefully.
“No. I don’t even know if anything I’ve just told you will help. But… I figured it couldn’t hurt.”
“You’re absolutely right. And I thank you for bringing this to our attention.”
“Jess is a good girl. It kills me to think someone could hurt her and get away with it.”
“Well, we’re doing everything we can to find out who did this.”
Steve stood, leaning forward and shaking Nathan’s hand. “Thank you for taking the time to see me.”
“Anytime. And if you think of anything else, please give us a call or come back in. We can use all the help we can get.”
Steve nodded and headed for the door.
Nathan watched Steve Marchand leave, tilting his head to the side and silently contemplating the man’s story. This was the first he had heard of Miss Porter being fearful that someone was following her. But just because it was new information didn’t mean it should be disregarded. They were grasping at straws at this point and would take any information they got.
Crossing his arms over one another on top of his desk, he dropped his head onto them with a loud thud and groaned. This case was just getting more and more complicated with each passing second. Too many possible suspects and not enough evidence to point the finger at anyone in particular.
He heard the door open but restrained from lifting his head.
“Nathan,” Penny’s meek voice broke the silence.
“Hmm?” his muffled voice replied.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah. Nothing that a bottle of whiskey can’t fix.” He heard her gasp and lifted his head, offering her a rueful smile. “I’m kidding.”
“Mike wanted me to tell you that he was heading out for a few.”
She simply nodded and shut the door quietly behind her, leaving Nathan staring after her with tired eyes.
So many questions remained. Was this a random killing or planned? Was it ritual or were the stab patterns meant to throw them off, set them barking up the wrong tree? Did the victims know the murder, or murderers? And was Jessica Porter nothing more than an innocent who in fact showed up at the wrong time? Or was she another intended victim, meant to die along with the other three? God, he was going insane here!
* * * *
Cameron Demauro sat on a bench overlooking the main park, carelessly tossing bits of bread from his sandwich to the squawking ducks littered around him. His mind was finding it hard to grasp what had happened, his heart constricting at the thought of Jessie feeling a single ounce of pain.
The worst part was not knowing. He didn’t know if she was going to be okay, if she was going to recover, or if she was going to die like the other three. And he sure as hell knew that Sheriff Nathan Benson wasn’t going to give him any information. What was he to do?
It wasn’t as if he could march right into the hospital and find out for himself what condition she was in. Hell, he didn’t even know where she was. That pissed him off. He was used to keeping tabs on her, knowing exactly where she was and whom she was with. Cameron knew his infatuation with Jessica Porter border lined on obsession but he didn’t care. He couldn’t help the way he felt about her. Unfortunately, she didn’t feel the same way and that knowledge killed him.
He had been there for her ever since he could remember, lending her a shoulder to cry on when life had taken a turn for the worst. Cameron had always been the one to comfort her, to console her, and to make her smile. She relied on him even if she didn’t realize it.
But he had been certain that one day she would look at him with the same affection he had felt for her all of these years. Now… her life hung in the balance, their fate ambiguous.
He tossed the last piece of bread to the ducks and covered his face with his hands. She loved him. He knew it down to his very core. The problem was, Jessie didn’t know it yet.
Friends. She had said that she wanted to be friends. He had tried to convince her that they could be so much more, had been forward and kissed her. But Jessie had pushed him away, had scolded him like a child for being so bold. She had said that she didn’t want to lose him as a friend over what had happened. But then, Jessie had distanced herself from him, had pushed him away. And started seeing Steve Marchand.
She had said that she didn’t have time for a relationship, yet he had seen her go out with the man. Jessie had lied to him, straight to his face. She had said that she didn’t want a relationship, but what she had meant was that she didn’t want a relationship with him.
Cameron dropped his hands from his face and balled them up into tight fists. Jessie was the one woman in the world he could depend on for honesty. And when it all came down to it, he had put his trust in the wrong woman. He had given his heart to a woman that had thrown it back in his face. That was a sin that didn’t go unforgiven or forgotten.