Authors: Linda Wisdom
Tags: #Mystery, #Thriller, #Romantic Suspense, #contemporary romance
“I should have been the one to take over here. Harvey promised me I’d get the job when he retired.” He spoke with open hostility for the first time. “My qualifications are a hell of a lot better than yours. All you have are more fancy degrees than I do. They only took you because they wanted a forensic specialist.” He spat out the words.
“Did he ever put his promise in writing for you? Did he say he submitted his recommendation?”
He was startled that she hadn’t ripped right into him for opening his big mouth. A saner voice told him she could probably write him up, although there were no witnesses to what he said.
She stared at the floor for several moments before lifting her head. “Pete, when you put your mind to it, you are an excellent second-in-command, but sometimes even experience doesn’t hold enough weight. According to past performance reports, you refused to show any interest in the forensics side of pathology. That is badly needed here, and you have trouble dealing with crime scenes, especially the nasty ones. I threw up more times than I could count when I first went out to crime scenes. All you can do is pray your stomach will soon get the message. Start planning to attend some of the forensics seminars. Be willing to do more than your share. I had to do that and then some. At least you don’t have to worry about ‘women shouldn’t be doing these kind of things’ speeches from the good old boys.”
“Why are you being so helpful about all this?”
She exhaled a puff of air. “Because I figure if you want something bad enough you’ll be willing to work for it. There’s no guarantee I’ll be staying here for the next twenty or thirty years. And there’s no guarantee you’d want to stay if you could get in somewhere else. I’m just saying if you’re willing to try, I’ll do what I can.”
Pete looked undecided as if he was unsure she was speaking the truth, but didn’t want to ruin what could be a good thing, either. “I’ll think about it.”
Lauren nodded and left, grateful he hadn’t been sullen about it. And wishing her day was already over.
“Come on, Josh, hear me out,” the public defender begged, dropping into the seat across from Josh as he ate lunch. “Ricky Barlow is willing to plead guilty to holding and give us the name of his dealer as a bonus.”
He wasn’t having any of it. He looked at his hamburger. “Larry, this is the second time Ricky’s been picked up for dealing. This time he was selling to an eight-year-old. Forget it. I want him locked up for as long as possible.”
The PD stared hungrily at Josh’s fries. “Get real, Josh, he won’t even be in there that long and we both know it.”
“Not if we get Sawyer, who’s a real hard-nose with druggies. He believes in stressing rehab along with jail time.” Josh dipped a French fry in ketchup and popped it in his mouth. “Look, Larry, I know you’re as backed up as I am, but this is one I’m not willing to deal on. That kid walked too many times when he was a minor because his mother was in here crying a tale how she needed him at home and the social worker giving her sob story on how he needed to be out to take care of his mother and brothers and sisters since their dad had walked out on them eight years ago. All he’s managed to do is turn his fifteen-year-old sister into a hooker and his twelve-year-old brother into a delivery boy. He’s got an attitude I want to see cut down.”
“Terrific, he’ll be in there getting an advanced degree in dealing and picking up new contacts for when he gets out. Yeah, a great way to keep the streets clean,” Larry muttered, stuffing the file back in his briefcase and pulling out another one. “Okay, how about Ruiz? You handling him?”
Josh shook his head. “Sylvia is.”
Larry almost buried his head inside his briefcase. “All right, what about—”
The public defender looked up, his expression almost glassy-eyed, so he didn’t catch the grim reality in Josh’s eyes.
“Larry, I am eating lunch here,” Josh said slowly and distinctly. All slight trace of his slow drawl was gone as his eyes bored into the younger man’s. “And for once, I’d like to enjoy my meal without a damn PD dropping in trying to cut a deal for another perp. I’m tired of popping Tums every chance I get, guzzling Maalox in between, and wondering if I’m going to end up with an ulcer. It’s bad enough that I’m dealing with you guys who can’t even keep your clients straight. Sawyer almost had a shit fit last week when Watson came running in five minutes late with a file for a different prisoner than the one he was defending. You want to deal, see me in my office, and if you dare interrupt my lunch again in hopes of cutting a deal, I’ll make your life a living hell. Got it?”
Larry snapped shut his briefcase and stood up. “Okay, okay, you don’t have to hit me over the head. You’re going to have to learn to roll with it, old boy, or you’ll end up under Dr. Hunter’s knife instead of over her luscious bod.” He made sure he was out of striking range before shooting off the last remark, and almost ran out of the cafeteria.
Several people chuckled at the man’s quick escape. Josh’s temper was legend when he was crossed the wrong way and people made sure not to see that temper too often.
“No wonder no one wants to go up against you, Brandon,” one of the other public defenders joked from across the room. “You scare the shit out of them when they just ask for an easy plea bargain!”
Muttering comments about the obscure sexual habits of public defenders, Josh piled his plate back on the tray, picked it up, and left. He’d toyed with the idea of stopping off to see if Lauren was in, but after Larry’s crack back there, he decided against it. It appeared, while Lauren preferred they take it slow and easy, the gossip mill already had them in the midst of a hot-and-heavy affair. Not that he’d mind it if it was true.
For a brief moment, the scary thought hit him that if everyone else thought that, who wasn’t to say a certain woman wouldn’t think the same thing? He muttered a curse when his cell phone softly chimed an old-fashioned ringing bell. He checked caller ID, saw that the number was blocked, and paused before tapping
“Yes, this is Josh Brandon,” he said matter-of-factly, idly scanning the people passing by. The voice on the other end barely registered.
“I know that,” the woman’s voice was breathy and seemed to ooze pure sex. “How are you, Josh?”
He immediately straightened up. “I don’t have time to talk, Heather. I’d also like to know how you got this number.”
“Your dragon of an assistant refused to put my calls through to you and you ignored my calls to your home phone. I had to get a little creative.”
He turned around to face the wall. This was the last conversation he wanted to have in a public place, even on the phone.
“It was all said six months ago.”
“I was PMSing. I didn’t know what I was saying.”
Josh lowered his voice, praying no one would overhear him. “Your idea of fun and games differs greatly from mine. Why don’t we just part as friends and be done with it?”
“I said I’m apologizing.” Her sugar-sweet voice turned hard. “And I want us to get back together again.”
“And I don’t.” His voice was equally granite.
“I’ve been a perfect lady about this, Josh, but I don’t take rejection lightly. You just remember that.” Dead air seemed to vibrate in his ear.
Josh barely hesitated before putting a call into Kevin and asking him to do some checking on Heather’s whereabouts.
“Will do,” the detective promised. “No wonder they had those sayings about a woman scorned.”
“Right now, I’m going to hope that she’s the one. She’s got some pretty strange ideas, so I wouldn’t be surprised,” Josh said grimly.
“Nowadays, nothing surprises me.”
She walked up to a group she knew and sat with them during lunch. She’d deliberately chosen to eat with these people because their table was so close to Josh’s she could almost reach out and touch him. She could even swear she smelled his aftershave. And she could listen to him while Larry tried to cut a deal for another one of his creepy druggie clients who relied on the public defender’s office to get them off. She was so proud of Josh not giving in to that bastard Larry, but then, Josh wouldn’t do that. Except her joy was short-lived when she heard Larry mention the bitch’s name. Did people honestly think Josh would want a woman like her? So many men talked about Lauren, about her looks and the way she’d handled herself in a couple of recent cases she’d had to testify for. What made her so special that the men practically panted when they talked about her? It was the same when she had to listen to men talk about Celia as if she was the only woman in the world. She stared at the salad she suddenly didn’t want.
She knew she was considered pretty, but she couldn’t remember the last time a man had told her so or even commented about her looks. She wished Lauren would soon turn into old news because she was sick and tired of hearing about her!
Lauren better remember she had made a deal with her. That she’d promised to stay away from Josh. And she would stay away from him. Because if she didn’t, things would turn very ugly.
“When I find the culprit who did this despicable thing, I swear I will string him up by his toes! I’ll dissect that human rat and then cut him into tiny pieces!”
Blind in her fury, Lauren walked right into a heavy object and found her feet starting to slide out from under her.
“Whoa!” A pair of hands shot out and grabbed her arms to keep her from falling. His fingers slid against the polished cotton of her blue surgical scrubs. “You’re not carrying any sharp instruments, are you?” Josh’s gaze traveled over her disheveled form.
She blew a stray strand of hair out of her eyes. “Norman is missing and the person who took him is going to end up in cold storage for a very long time.”
“Norman? I don’t recall anyone with that name. Is he new around here?”
Lauren took several deep breaths to calm her temper, but didn’t get a chance to speak.
“Hey, Doc, this report’s gotta be wrong!” Unshaven, wearing a pair of tattered jeans and a beat-up T-shirt, he looked more like a homeless person than a homicide detective. Only the gold shield clipped to his waistband lent credence to his position.
“Now, where have I heard that before?” Josh murmured.
Lauren shot him a warning look before turning around. “What part of my report is supposed to be wrong, Detective Evans?”
He skidded to a stop, nodded at Josh, and turned to Lauren. He flapped the report in her face. “You said the bullet that killed the guy came from a .357 Magnum. That can’t be. The slime that shot him used a 9mm Luger.”
She took it out of his hand and quickly scanned the pages to refresh her memory. “Oh yes, this one. I also found the two 9mm’s in him that you wanted, but it was the .357 that tore up his lung that did the trick. He basically drowned in his own blood. I told your partner that when I performed the post, and that’s what I wrote up.”
The detective looked uneasily at Josh. “Could cause a problem, huh?”
“It means until you find the .357, you don’t have a murder case; only a case of attempted murder, or maybe assault with a deadly weapon.”
“Shit!” He slapped the report against his thigh. “Why didn’t Warren tell me this when he got back from the post?”
“Why don’t you ask him?” Lauren coldly suggested. “Sorry, Detective, but I have enough problems of my own. Everything you need to know is in my report.”
“Maybe he would take a kidnapping report as a courtesy. Although they do like to wait twenty-four hours.” Josh murmured. He flinched when Lauren’s heel stepped back solidly onto his toes. Even though she wore running shoes, she put all her weight back there.
“Detective Evans, if you’re so concerned because you don’t receive the results right away, you might consider coming down and observing the post next time,” Lauren suggested, with a hint of acid in her voice. “Then you’d have a preliminary diagnosis.”
The man shook his head and walked out. “Great, he knows I hate the sight of blood. That’s why he handles that end of the case. Son of a bitch.”
“I still say you should have asked him to fill out a kidnapping report. He might have done it as a courtesy.”
“Norman is my anatomical skeleton. My very own personal skeleton, which I brought with me. One in as excellent condition as he is isn’t always easy to come by, either! He is very valuable, not to mention practically a family heirloom in my eyes.” Her head whipped around as if expecting to find the guilty party lurking nearby. “And someone took him!”
Josh fought to keep from bursting out in laughter. “Fine, call the police and file a missing skeleton report. There might be a waiting period even for him, though.”
Her gaze glittered with warning lights as she snapped back to him. “This is not a joke, Joshua Brandon.” She spoke each word slowly and distinctly. “Taking Norman meant that someone had to have gotten into my office when I wasn’t around. Since there’s no reason for anyone to go in there when I’m not in, I keep the door locked. Now do you understand why I’m furious?”
He ignored her sarcasm. “Come on.” He grabbed her shoulders and spun her back around. “Let’s check this out.”
“There is nothing to check out.” She picked up her pace to keep up with his longer strides as he headed for her office. “He’s gone.”
“The lock didn’t look tampered with? No sign of forced entry? Signs of anything else taken?”
She shook her head. “I didn’t check the file cabinets because I doubted there’d be anything in there anyone would want. Nor did I look through my computer files.”
Josh halted at her office door, stopping her from unlocking the door so he could examine the lock first. “No scratches,” he murmured.
She placed her hand on him as she looked over his shoulder. “No offense, but shouldn’t a
police officer be doing that? Couldn’t you be obscuring evidence? Smudging fingerprints?”
“Didn’t you unlock the door in order to go in where you found out Norman was stolen?”
She groaned. “So probably the only fingerprints they’d find are mine.”
He straightened up and took the key out of her hand, quickly unlocking it and pushing her inside, closing the door after them. “Where do you usually keep your old friend?”
“In the coat closet.” She opened the narrow door. A stainless steel pole was braced against the back of the closet. She closed the door. “And yes, if there were fingerprints here, there wouldn’t be anymore, because I opened it when I came in.”
“Maybe somebody’s pulling a practical joke on you. Someone might have put him down in one of the refrigerated units in hopes of giving someone a good scare. The crew always enjoys a good practical joke.”
“While I enjoy a good practical joke and have participated in some winners in the past, I’ve never allowed Norman to be part of one for fear something would happen to him. I’ve had him since I was a pathology resident.” She flicked her fingers through a pile of file folders on her desk and shook her head.
“It doesn’t look as if anything is missing. At least, they’re all in the order I’d left them.”
They stared at each other for several moments.
“You think it’s her, don’t you? She’s invaded my house, so now she’s invading my office. It’s probably easier to get into than yours, since there’s more activity in your area.”
Josh pushed the closet door closed. “If your staff knows that Norman is off-limits, then I can’t imagine they would take him. It doesn’t leave too many other options, does it? By the way, where did you come up with the name Norman? Or was that the name he was born with?”
She shook her head. “I named him after Norman Bates. Tall, skinny. It fits, except he lacks the dark hair and psychotic boyish charm. You won’t find his mother in the cellar, unless you count me.”
“Somehow it fits.”
Lauren stared at the top button of Josh’s white shirt that had been left undone. She wished she didn’t have this overwhelming urge to unbutton it the rest of the way. She tried to tell herself it was hormones making her act a little crazy today.
“Spend the morning in court?” she asked.
“An arraignment. How did you know?”
She crossed her arms in front of her chest and eyed him from head to toe. She noticed his unruly thick hair was even tamed more than usual. “Dress shirt, no tie. It’s your own personal dress code for court dates.” She uncrossed her arms and idly picked at a bloodstain on the front of her shirt.
He stared down at the top of her head. “Lauren.”
Her body stiffened at the low tone. “Don’t, Josh.”
“You know why.” She straightened up, walked around her desk to her chair, and dropped into it. She doubted he knew her favorite defensive maneuver was to use her desk and cocky manner as a shield.
He leaned over the desk with his hands braced against the edge. “Bullshit. You’re not the only one to go through a bad marriage and divorce, Lauren, and I think that’s nothing more than an excuse.”
“Don’t let your overwhelming male ego get in the way.”
“I don’t think it’s my male ego saying there’s a mutual interest between us. So what’s wrong with our seeing each other after hours?”
She looked up. “It could be considered conflict of interest.”
“I can’t imagine that would be a problem. I think you’re the type who would be stringent in keeping your professional and personal lives separate.” He deliberately paused. “Or does your refusal to see me have to do with your promise to the nightmare lady to stay away from me?” Only a slight tightening of her facial muscles told him he’d hit it right on the mark. “She told me what she did, Lauren. Don’t let her rule your life.”
Nothing in her expression gave her away as she stared up at him. “You’re the one with the problem, Josh—not me. Right now, I have a lot of work ahead of me to whip this department into shape. From what I’ve heard, you have a heavy-duty case pending. If there’s something I can do to help you with your stalker, I’ll do it. But don’t ask anything of me that I can’t give. And right now, romance is at the very bottom of my list.”
He straightened up and walked to the door. Before he opened it, he looked back. “There’s more to it, isn’t there? What does she have on you, Lauren? What terrible secret is that bitch using to keep you under tabs? What if I called someone in LA and asked about you? What would I learn?”
Lauren sat frozen to her chair long after Josh left with his questions hanging in the air.
“Hopefully, you won’t call up there and find out,” she whispered, once she was able to function again.
Josh’s encounter with Lauren left him in a nasty temper for the rest of the day, and it escalated as he tore into an unsuspecting police officer whom he cornered in the courthouse after things went bad in court.
“Do you realize this case has to be thrown out because of your stupidity?” he growled, staring the man down.
The officer, a man in his late twenties who had been in uniform for only a few years, gulped. “Mr. Brandon, I swear—”
“That doesn’t do diddly.” He loomed over the shorter man. “Let me make this perfectly clear, Officer. You didn’t properly Mirandize the suspect, so the judge had no choice but to throw the case out. We’re talking about a felony case that should have been open and shut, with that guy doing some hard time. Now he’s walking because you didn’t
.” He looked as if he wanted to do physical harm to the man before he just shook his head and stalked off.
“Next time, let him go in there and try to hold down a guy who’s loony tunes on PCP and see if he can do any better,” the officer muttered to his partner, who had more years of experience in the field.
“He has and he did,” the other man replied with the same disgust Josh had displayed. “Let me give you a piece of advice, Jefferies. Don’t screw up again where Mr. Brandon is involved, or next time he’ll ream your ass but good.”
His mouth dropped in disbelief. “What would you call what he just did?”
“I’d say you were lucky it wasn’t worse.” He walked off, leaving the officer to fend off curious stares and muttered comments. Josh’s temper regarding botched arrests were concerned was a well-known fact in the courthouse.
“Josh!” Mitzi ran to catch up with him before he left the courthouse. She laughed as she finally reached him. “Are you in a hurry or what? Sorry your case went south.”
“Just another episode in a bad day.” He shifted his briefcase from one hand to the other. “What can I do for you?”
“It’s Brian. He’s been having problems in school, and I thought talking to another male might help.”
He hesitated. “Mitzi, what about your dad talking to him? I mean, Brian doesn’t know me from Adam. Why would he open up to me?”
“Well, I talk about you all the time. He knows who you are and how much help you’ve been protecting us from Steve. I wonder if you could come over for dinner maybe tomorrow night. Or the night after,” she quickly tacked on. “Maybe he’d talk to you where he won’t talk to me.”
Josh felt that rock and a hard place closing in fast. “I don’t think that would be a good idea, Mitzi. If Brian needs a male figure, he needs one he can count on, not just someone his mom knows from work.”
The hopeful light faded from her eyes. “I don’t consider you just someone from work, Josh. I mean, I know my life hasn’t exactly been normal lately, but…”
He held up his hand. The last thing he wanted was for her to say something she’d only regret later. “Mitzi, you are a very gutsy lady and I care about what happens to you because after what you’ve gone through, you deserve the very best. I only hope you find it.”
She immediately realized he was offering her a graceful way out. “Maybe you’re right about my asking his grandfather to talk to him. My dad has been talking about taking Brian out kite flying on weekends or to a ball game, but I was afraid he might take too much on. Maybe he feels he needs to do this.” She took a deep breath. “He feels guilty that he didn’t notice Steve’s abuse sooner, and I was afraid he was trying to overcompensate. My mother died four years ago. So maybe I’ll have him over for dinner instead.” She rallied with a broad smile. “I hope you don’t mind if I rescind the dinner invitation?”
Josh understood. “Not at all.”
“I better get back.” She suddenly looked uneasy as she started to walk away.
A thought suddenly occurred to him. “Mitzi?” She turned around with a questioning look. “Do you know anything about plants? I got one as a gift and I have no idea how to take care of it.”
“What kind is it? Leafy, flowering? Indoor, outdoor?” she asked. “I love all kinds of plants. I have them all over the house. Steve constantly complained that I spent too much time tending the indoor plants and the flowers out back in my garden.”
He swallowed the nausea traveling up his throat. “Actually, I don’t remember the exact name. I’ll look on the tag and get back to you on it.”