The light above him was flickering like they always did in the bullpen at a police station, supposedly to create some kind of rough, gritty ambiance, but in reality, all the viewer could think of was why the fuck someone didn't grab a ladder and fix the damn thing instead of sitting there with the flick flick flickering day in and day out.
I didn't want to get a ladder, so I guess I could understand the cops' grim acceptance of the annoyance too.
It was something Quin would never stand for - something not working like it should. Which was why he was the one who owned and ran the place and I was just an employee. And if Finn came in, he would likely have a stroke over the fact that there was dust and what looked like a moth carcass up under the plastic. I was tidy enough in general. My office didn't become the collection of clutter with haphazard piles teetering ominously on every surface like Kai's did on occasion, but I didn't exactly wipe down the surfaces every night like Jules was known to do in the main area of the building.
Absentmindedly, I swiped a finger across the cherry red of my desk - a color that drove Quin crazy since it didn't match the black and gray theme of everything in the office. But thanks to a grandfather who made it clear that painting a nice slab of wood was practically sacrilegious, I had been adamant about my office. The desk, the storage cabinet against the wall, the legs on the leather armchairs across from my desk were all cherry wood. The walls were also a concession on his part - not gray, but a warm cream. I'd gotten more than enough of grays and blacks and cold, supposedly masculine things while I served. I wanted something warmer, cozier at the office I spent more time in than my own place.
There was the distinct ringing of a phone out in the lobby - not the shrill, ear-piercing kind of ring you would hear on a house phone, but that subdued, rolling ring of office phones, likely specialized that way to keep administrative assistants or front desk workers - or whatever the PC word was for people who used to be known to do secretarial work - didn't lose their fucking minds while on the job.
Not that Jules was capable of losing her mind. People who micromanaged the way she did so effortlessly had things way too put-together to ever lose it. She'd calmed down a bit since finally shacking up with Kai. She didn't stay as late, didn't come in on the weekends unless there were jobs and the office was hopping.
I was actually surprised she was still out there to answer the phones when Kai didn't have an active job.
Maybe she felt bad for me.
Shit, I almost felt bad for me. This behemoth pile of files and paperwork and order forms was going to keep me chained to the desk until well after midnight from the looks of things. If it was possible for someone to actually die under a pile of paperwork, I would be the case that hit the news.
How the hell did Quin handle this?
There were three sharp raps on the door, Jules' telltale knock that was usually wholly unnecessary since she somehow managed to wear high heels all day, every day, and the steady click-click-clicking down the hall always gave her away.
"Yeah, what's up, Jules?" I asked, watching the door open, seeing her peek her head in before fully stepping into the doorway, shaking her head a bit.
"I'm sorry. I know you have a lot on your plate, but..."
But Quin was out of town for the entire month on vacation.
And I was in charge.
So this - like the paperwork that made me worry about the state of the rainforest - was my responsibility.
"What's the job?" I asked, figuring there was no reason to get down about it since there was nothing to change the situation. Maybe I'd dump some of the paperwork on Lincoln's desk. That bastard weaseled out of it far too often anyway. He was due.
"You aren't going to believe this one. Not to offend you or anything, but I am going to make a call to Quinn after I tell you."
"I'm not offended; he's the boss."
"You know Senator Ericsson?"
"The very one. And you know he has a son."
"Who makes him seem like a saint."
"Yes, well. He doesn't have a son anymore," she told me, squaring her shoulders a bit. "And his wife needs us."
That was a Quin-level job.
But Quin was half a world away.
So, it was a me-level job.
And I silently prayed I would have what it would take.
"Call Quin," I agreed, getting to my feet. The drawer to the desk slid out with the smallest amount of friction - testament to the hours I spent trying to get them right. I grabbed my gun, loaded it, slipped it into a shoulder holster, then threw on my jacket. "And wake up Finn, just in case. I have no idea how we can swing this. Was she hysterical?"
Jules shook her head. "No. Calm. Eerily so. Her voice shook, but so long as she holds it together until you get there to assess everything, I think she will be workable."
Workable was what I wanted, no, needed in a situation that was going to require a lot of careful footing, succinct lying.
"Smith," Jules called behind me after shooting off a text to Finn while she watched me head toward the exit.
"I don't know if you were in town at the time, if you remember this or heard of this, but do you know about Senator Ericsson's son, and his wife, and the Mallicks?"
"I know," I affirmed, moving out the door. "Call Quinn," I added, locking her in before taking off toward my truck, shoulders hunching forward to ward off the December chill. Never put much weight in the Farmer's Almanac, but this year they said it would be cold and snow-filled, and it had been frigid and the town seemed perpetually white. Or brown-covered white from the plows and traffic kicking up muck.
By the time I climbed in my truck, being assaulted by the freezing air blasting from the vents, Jules had texted me the address.
Watching my breath puff in the air around me, I reversed, turned my truck in the direction of the other side of Navesink Bank.
The wealthy side.
Where most of our clients who were from the area lived, always giving Quin shit about setting up shop a stone's throw from the Third Street Gang and across the street from a half rundown apartment building.
Quin just claimed it was the only place in town to get a large chunk of real estate at a steal. And left out the part where the best forger in the world - and his new apprentice - lived in that rundown apartment building that any one of us could get to in a pinch for a client.
Besides, Third Street was a pathetic facsimile of the organization they used to be. Not that being so was safe per se since any organization lacking strong central leadership meant that an inevitable civil war was coming. And, with low-level street gangs, that often meant an undue amount of bloodshed, shooting in the streets, fucking drive-bys. But Quin made sure the building was locked down tight no matter what happened. It was, after all, where we brought the most valuable of people to hide out when their usual security teams couldn't protect them - no matter how much money they threw at them. We couldn't exactly expect them to shell out a quarter or half mill to stay for a spell and let a stray bullet take them out thanks to some stupid street war.
I parked my car in the driveway of a client who I knew to be in the south for the winter, not wanting it parked on the street, rousing suspicion in this kind of neighborhood, and not wanting it linked to an active crime scene either, and climbed out, making my way down the streets.
These weren't McMansions - those giant homes that sure looked beautiful, but if you inspected it more closely, you would see that the tile was cheap, the countertops laminate, the wood floors sub-par.
These were actual mansions.
Or, as the owners of these kinds of homes preferred to call them, estates.
Each was set on an identical lot somewhere around three acres, their long, winding driveways with nary a speck of snow, white Christmas lights still on even this late at night.
White Christmas lights.
Was there anything less festive than white Christmas lights?
And, besides, what was the point of putting up Christmas lights at all when you had floodlights lighting up the entire front of the house just to make sure that no one forgot - not even for a second - that your house was very nice and very expensive.
Two people in massive estates were, in my opinion, one of the most ridiculous shows of ego second only, perhaps, to dropping over a hundred-k on a sports car that you only use to drive to errands or social outings disguised as charity events.
I had nothing against being rich - or the more long-standing, multi-generational version of it - extremely wealthy. I just hated the showiness, the one-upping of each other in some desperate attempt to appear at the tippy top of the upper class.
I mean, did they know how many mouths they could feed with the money they dropped on their third damn Porsche, Bentley, or Lamborghini?
When my income surpassed my yearly - and retirement savings - needs, I started having a handful of my chosen charities charge me monthly donations. The amount of surplus - unneeded - money the men and women on this street alone had could probably end world hunger or completely fund inner city schools, keep seniors and veterans fed, get the homeless off the streets, fix the goddamn water in Flint.
But, nope, they wintered in Bali and The Maldives.
I wondered a bit fleetingly if Mrs. Ericsson spent her money on charities or shoes and handbags with some special label sewn inside.
Not that we could bitch. We'd take her money like we'd take anyone else's money whether she was a good person or not.
The house belonging to Senator Ericsson's son and his wife was no less grand than any of the others. It was possibly the oldest on the block, maybe the only one that had existed alone on all this land. Maybe there was even a smaller house on the grounds for the housekeeper and groundskeeper to live. It was a red brick Colonial with stately pillars that held up a triangular overhang that umbrella'd the wide front steps. The brick itself was flawless, not a single fleck of mortar chipping out. The blue shutters had been painted within the last season or two. The pillars were power washed, spotless. Hell, even the stone path leading up to the door looked like it got a fresh red and deep gray staining recently.
It didn't look like an active crime scene. It didn't look like a place that could even have one. Save for maybe a robbery, someone trying to get into the goods hidden away in the safe that was likely 'hidden away' deep inside the master closet.
But a neat crime. When the owners were out of the house. Or one that left the owners tied to chairs in their dining room with gags to be found by the staff early the next morning - a non-violent ordeal they would milk for a decade, being called brave and strong by all the people in their circle as they clutched their pearls or diamonds at their throats in fear of losing them the same way.
But this house was home to a different kind of crime. A dark, unpredictable one that brought the demise of one of the owners. Seemingly at the hands of the other.
It would be the top of the news cycle for a week.
That is if we let it get out there.
Which we wouldn't.
Because she was the client.
And being the client meant she was innocent, whatever it took for us to convince the world at large of that fact.
It would be a big job.
Quin was probably shitting himself at being half a world away. He'd be on my ass day and night until we were sure all the loose ends were tied up, until the client got off Scot-free, until the media circus died down, until the check cleared in the company account.
On the books, we were a consulting company. We helped with PR and private security. All above-board, legal, nothing to raise a speculative brow at.
In reality, almost everything we did was illegal. We lied, cheated, mastered the art of spin. We got rid of bodies when they dropped inopportunely. We cleaned crime scenes. We made deals with bad guys.
It was an odd job, some might think, for a bunch of ex-military people to do, men and women who were supposed to be all for law and order and justice.
But, see, sometimes, in the service, in operations that would never make the news, that were so black there needed to be a new name for them, that were only known about by a handful of high-ranking officials, that only existed in heavily redacted files buried deep in some government building somewhere, you learn things. You learn that you - and your country - are capable of terrible things in the name of law and order. And you learn that there is very little justness in the justice handed out by lowly - but heavily trained and skilled - men and women for the grand schemes of bigger men.
Men like Senator Ericsson. And all the people he brushed shoulders with.
So there was no difference, really, between cleaning up the mess of a nation or one for a private citizen. Both jobs demanded the same skills, the same level of discretion, the same ability to push personal morals aside and do things you may or may not be comfortable with.
It was a natural choice for me when Quin came to find me. Most of us - especially me, Finn, and Ranger, had been struggling a bit with adjusting, trying to pretend we could live perfectly normal lives after all the things we had seen, the things we had done.
My feet were silent on the stone steps as I closed in on a door the same muted blue that the shutters were painted. A grand sort of door with the glass panes to either side. The kind of door that led into a grand foyer with a giant, shimmering chandelier where people greeted with handshakes and cheek kisses before retiring to the library.
I skipped the bell, not wanting to alarm her or possibly alert those new sort of alarm systems that took pictures or videos when the bell rang.
My hand went to the sturdy wood instead, rapping somewhat quietly three times.
"Mrs. Ericsson, this is Smith from Quinton Baird and Associates."
"C..come in," a voice called, shaking like Jules had said, but not frantic. Just freaked.
And, well, wouldn't you be freaked if you just killed your husband?
My hand went to the knob, finding it didn't turn. But I didn't know what I would be walking into. I didn't want her to move. I was sure Jules had told her just that. She was nothing if not thorough.
"Do you have an alarm system on?" I called as I reached in my pocket for a lock-pick kit. The service had taught me how to use it. For what reason, I wasn't sure. We were always more of a knock-the-mother-fucker-down group. I'd only ever used the skill since working with Quin.
"It's n-not armed," she called back after a pause - hopefully just looking at the panel, not moving toward it.
I made short work of the lock, carefully moving the door open, not sure what might be in front of me.
When the door swung without meeting resistance - or dragging a half-moon in blood, I moved fully inside.
The foyer was as grand as the door had implied with a double staircase sloping gently in a half circle. A crystal chandelier hung twenty-some-odd feet above my head, shining, catching the bright light even at the late hour. Directly in front of me was an oversized marble table with a giant glass vase overflowing with lilies. White. White was the favorite color of people with some extra money, I found.
There were drops of blood on the floor, a little trickle from a small type of wound, stark red against the white tile floor.
"H-here," Mrs. Ericsson's voice called from the right, making me turn on my heel to find a body sprawled in the doorway to what seemed to be a library, blood bloomed out around his midsection to encompass even his head.
Heart shot, maybe.
A few feet from him, far enough that she'd likely - hopefully - avoided blood spatter, was Mrs. Ericsson.
I didn't know what I was expecting of the two. I guess older for one thing. The senator's age was hard to tell, being in that section of years when a man who kept himself fit and groomed could pass for fifty or seventy-five depending on genes. I had automatically assumed the latter. But his son had maybe been in his late thirties, his daughter-in-law maybe her early.
The kind of body that screamed pilates, yoga, a diet high in veggies and low in crap, maybe even one of those stupid ass Fitbits everyone wore around like it was so hard to tell if you were sweating enough to lose weight or not. An obsessive kind of lithe, toned, taken care of, that was what she was. And her floor-length champagne-colored silk nightie didn't leave a whole hell of a lot to the imagination.
Her eyes were pretty, just shy of big, bright, almost startling blue. So much so that I couldn't help but wonder if they were contacts.
But, see, it was impossible to tell if she was pretty beyond the great body, the perfect, gleaming blonde hair, the stunning shade to her eyes.
Because her entire face was wrecked.
See, I hadn't been around, but I had buddies around who kept me up-to-date on the goings-on in Navesink Bank. So, while I didn't know from watching actual news clips or anything about the situation, I knew the general story. One night, Senator Ericsson's son was beating his wife. In a case of wrong place and wrong time, one of the Mallick boys came upon them and nearly beat the man to death.
He served nearly a decade behind bars once the senator and his team got the right lawyers, hushed up the wife, had her lie on the stand.
They somehow managed to spin the story to omit the bit about how the spousal abuse was a factor, bleached the shit out of that dirty laundry.
But standing before me was the proof that while it got buried, while her voice got stifled, she had been doomed to a life of unknown beatings.
Like she had endured earlier in the night. Which I knew because the bruises were getting dark, her blood was drying.
A gun was in her right hand at her side. The other held her cell, the fingers on each white with pressure.
I tried not to wince at the black eyes, the bloody nose, the split lip, the fingerprints pressed into her throat, around her wrist like a bracelet. Her cheeks were fat, swollen from angry fists.
I didn't need to lose focus, to think of what she may have endured leading her to shoot the bastard after so many years.
I needed to keep her from spending the rest of her life in jail.
So I couldn't wonder if her eyes were small and red from crying... or pain from her injuries. I couldn't walk over to her, wrap an arm around her, and tell her everything was alright now.
Because it wasn't.
Right then, in that moment, nothing was alright.
Except her dead husband.
That was the only right thing in the whole situation.
"Okay. I am going to sound clipped and callous right now, Mrs. Ericsson. I'm not trying to be offensive. I just need to get this job done. So I need you to stay as calm as you are right now and work with me, okay?" She gave me a tight little nod. "Okay. How long ago was this?" I asked, looking down at the bloodstain again, trying to discern the level of drying.
"Fifteen minutes?" she guessed, shaking her head like she was trying to clear it. "No more than thirty."
"Good." That was really good. This could still be fixed. "I can't make this disappear, okay? I know you know we can do that. But we can't do that. Not with someone this high profile. So we need to make this seem like a robbery gone wrong sort of thing."
"Okay," she agreed and I noticed her lips were trembling, but her gaze was clear and steady.
"You are going to need to talk to the police. Then the detectives. Then the senator. Then his people. So you need to get this memorized. You need to be convincing."
"I can do that," she agreed, voice getting stronger. Sure.
"I imagined you've had to fake it a lot in your life with this fuck," I agreed.. "Now tell me about that gun. Yours? His? Legal? Not?"
"It's his and it's legal."
"Have you ever touched it on the inside? Cleaned it? Loaded the bullets yourself?"
"Are you sure? It's important."
"I hate guns. I've never touched it before."
"Okay, I need you to come closer over here, give it to me," I said, pulling thick leather gloves over my hands, reaching for wet wipes in my jacket. The bleach kind, not the baby. She moved stiffly across the floor, stopping at her late husband's feet, holding her shaky arm out to me. I took the gun, wiped it, then slipped it into my pocket. It would be found in the gutter down the street. "Here," I said, pulling out wipes for her. "You need to scrub at your hands and arms, under your fingernails," I instructed, watching as she started. "Here, for your chest and face and dress," I added when she handed me those first few sheets back. "All gunshot residue needs to be gone," I explained.
"Okay." She didn't question, just followed orders. She was smart enough to know how important this all was.
"I need your phone," I added, watching as she stiffened. "You called my office before you called the police," I explained. "They can't find that phone. Does he have one?"
"In his jacket pocket," she told me.
"Okay. Here is how it goes. This part is going to suck for you. But it has to happen." I could have sworn she mumbled something about how everything sucked for her, but I wasn't sure. "You need to drop down on top of his body, get the blood all over your knees and skirt. Touch his chest like you had tried to push the blood back in."
To my surprise, she didn't comment, didn't hesitate, just moved to do exactly as I ordered. Even went further, laid her body over his like a grieving wife would. She was good. Thank God.
"Now. Where did he beat you?" I asked. "In the house," I clarified.
She flinched back at the truth of those words, but didn't hesitate to answer. "The kitchen."
"Okay. Here is the story," I told her, squatting down next to his body to scrape under his nails into a baggy. He clearly beat her a lot. His skin had hardened up. His knuckles hadn't even broken open. Terrible for her, but also good. Her blood in his knuckles would be hard to explain. "You were in the kitchen. What were you doing?"
"Okay. Good. Best to stick with the facts. You were in the kitchen making tea and he was..."
"In the study."
"Okay. So instead of him coming in and beating you, someone else came in. Is there a door in the kitchen?"
"To the garage or backyard?"
"Perfect. I will unlock it. I will leave boot prints in and out and unlock the door. Someone came in that way. But you didn't hear him. And then he beat you. You didn't see a face. You blacked out when he got his hands around your throat. Use different words. Say you don't know what happened. Your vision swam. Next thing you knew, you woke up propped against the counter. Not on the floor. If you were on the floor, you'd have a head injury or have left blood from your face on the tile. You had slumped against the cabinet. And then you heard your husband yelling. Then you heard the pop. As you moved out that way to try to help your husband, the man rushed past you with a gun. Bumped into your shoulder, making you knock against the wall. Don't be too technical, but give details. People remember things. Their memories trip back in. You rushed in here, trying to save your husband, but he was already not breathing. You reached for his phone and called the police. And, if this is possible, sweetheart, I am going to need you to cry. Your voice will need to shake. Your words tumble together."
On cue, her eyes welled up.
Thank God for good clients.
"I can do it," she assured me, reassuring herself as well. "I have to," she added with a nod as the tears started to stream down her cheeks.
There was an odd, almost overwhelming urge to reach out, to wipe the tears from her cheeks. It was asinine. In this job, women crying was nearly a daily occurrence. You had to harden to it, choose to use calming language and rationality to get it to stop.
I never wanted to wipe them away before.
"Yes, you do. Now about the police call. Crying. Hysterical. That goes without saying. But here is the thing. Guilty people try to convince during a cop call. Innocent people try to relay facts. Help! My husband was shot. He's shot. Please help. He's not breathing. Please hurry. That kind of thing. Don't try to say where you were, when you noticed he was shot. Just answer their questions and keep begging them to hurry. To help. Keep giving them updates. His heart isn't beating. Oh God, his heart isn't beating. It's not complicated, but it is very important." I moved to stand, looking around, trying to see if there was anything else important I might have missed. I moved back to the front door, re locking it. People might forget to lock their back door, not likely their front. "Mrs. Ericsson," I called as she reached in his jacket to pull out his cell to make her call. "I'm sorry about this," I said, reaching to touch some of the blood on her chin, wincing myself when she winced. "I just need the blood for the back door. Now, I am going to go change and show back up after all the cops file out. And then we can talk. But now, you need to appear to fall the fuck apart while actually keeping it together. This is the hardest part. If you can successfully get through the questioning, the rest will be much easier. Do you think you remembered it all?"
"I used to memorize textbooks," she supplied oddly. "I can do this," she added, her voice already starting to hitch, get worked up.
"A couple hours. That is it," I promised her, moving back a few feet. "Count to one-hundred then call. I will be long gone by then," I said, following the blood trail on the floor, going through the kitchen, wiping the blood on both the handle and the inside of the jam. Then, stifling the urge to go back and listen, make sure she was doing okay on her phone call, I jumped in a circle, creating boot impressions in the mud leading away from the house.
I slowed my pace after tossing the gun in the gutter, not wanting to draw suspicion if anyone happened to be looking out their windows - unlikely at this house.
Getting back to my truck, I took off the boots, the gloves, tossed them and the wet wipes in a bag, wiping off her phone, then slipping it in my back pocket as I changed my shoes, sealed the bag, pulled my car further up the driveway, punching in the code for the garage that I knew because I had been there when it was set up, and parked my truck next to his two cars - black SUV, black sports car. And I sat and waited.
I heard the sirens.
Sat and waited some more, praying she was able to pull it off as I flipped on the police blotter, hoping to catch some chatter.
There wasn't much.
But there was also no word of bringing her in.
It was almost three and a half hours later when the lights stopped flashing, turned off, drove away.
But it was still too soon for me.
The uniforms were gone. The body likely also. But there was a chance a detective was still there. Or the Senator.
When I was sure it was safe enough, I pulled back out of the garage, tossing my bag in the pail, texting Finn to come pick it up and really dispose of it all.
And then I drove to her house, parking unabashedly in her driveway.
Because Quinton Baird & Associates did a lot of things. Like private security.
That was my new position in her life, one that could be questioned and verified.
When I let myself in the house, I found her sitting in the library, visibly shaking, face streaked with tears, eyes puffy, lips trembling.
One look said two things at once.
She'd held it together enough to pull it off.
And she was coming apart at the seams now.