COUNTDOWN TO MURDER
A Lovers in Crime Mystery Short
What did people do before ATMs were invented? Same thing they did before God invented credit cards. They only bought what they had the money to buy… Cameron grimaced at her reflection in her SUV’s rearview mirror. Her greenish-brown eyes narrowed to accentuate the laugh lines in the corner of her eyes. I sound like my mother. Am I really that old? Isn’t forty supposed to be the new thirty, which used to be middle-aged? Not anymore.
If I’m so young, why do I sound like my mother? Ordering herself to get on with it, Cameron climbed out of her car and went into the ATM booth next to the shopping center in Robinson Township, outside Pittsburgh. She slipped her card into the slot and punched in the PIN number. Quick cash? Then I’ll be back here in a couple of days. But then, I don’t like carrying lots of cash. Ah, just go for the whole hundred bucks. She hit the button for a hundred dollars. The booth’s door opened and closed. In the mirror concealing the security camera, she saw the man pull the hood of his sweatshirt up over his head to hide his face before he pushed up against her. Along with the odor of sweat and cigarettes, she felt the pressure of a gun against her side. Without turning around, she asked his reflection in the mirror, “Seriously?”
“Give me your money.” He moved in closer so that she could feel his hot, foul breath steaming up her short wavy brown hair. “This is why I hate ATMs,” she told whoever would be viewing the security footage.
Laughing, the desk sergeant at the state police barracks in Robinson Township stood up from where he was bent over a schedule when he saw Homicide Detective Cameron Gates barge through the doors with a suspect in handcuffs. She had pulled down the black hood on his jacket to reveal his bloody ears and nose. “Help!” the attempted thief screamed out. “This bitch is crazy!”
After shoving the suspect up against the desk, Cameron slapped the gun she had taken from him down in front of the sergeant. “Here’s your ATM bandit.” “I’m filing a complaint!” the thief told the sergeant. “Police brutality. She ripped my ear plugs right out of my earlobes—not to mention what she did to my balls. I tell you, if I end up being impotent, it’s her fault. There’s laws against using Tazers there! If there aren’t, there should be. I want a lawyer!” “Get in line,” Cameron said.
“I never would have tried to rob her if I had known she was a crazy cop!” the thief told the desk sergeant. “Isn’t that entrapment?”
“Not a cop,” the desk sergeant told him. “Homicide detective.” He clasped the thief by the shoulder. “We have a half dozen victims waiting to see you in lineup.”
He turned to Cameron. “You know the drill. Let’s get that gun into evidence.”
He took the thief and gun away to booking.
Once they were gone, Cameron noticed a woman sitting alone at a desk belonging to one of the troopers on duty. While it was not unusual for a citizen to be filing a complaint in the squad room, as well as sobbing; it was an unusual sight to see a pregnant woman with a bag filled with black dead roses.
There’s got to be a story here. Cameron stepped over to the woman. “Hello, are you being helped?”
With wide tear-filled eyes, the young woman looked up at the detective, dressed in a black pant suit, with a gold detective’s badge clipped to her belt. On the other hip, she wore her 9-mm Colt semi-automatic. “Are you a detective?”
“I’m Detective Cameron Gates.” She pulled up a chair and sat down. “And you are …”
“Tiffany Ambrose.” She shook the detective’s hand.
“Boyfriend problems?” Cameron nodded her head in the direction of the roses. “I don’t have a boyfriend.”
When Tiffany saw Cameron’s eyebrow arch, she grasped her bulging stomach. “My husband died four months ago. He was in the Navy and killed in a helicopter accident in Afghanistan. He was only supposed to be over there thirty days.” She hung her head. “Now he’s gone forever.”
“I’m sorry,” Cameron said. “My husband is a retired Navy guy. My step-son is a Navy ensign and stationed at the Pentagon.”
Tiffany wiped her eyes. “Jeff was planning to make Navy his career. His getting killed is theworst thing that could have ever happened to me. My mother never married and I swore that I wasn’t going to live like her. I’ve always lived my life on the straight and narrow. Jeff and I never drank. We didn’t do drugs. We were planning to give our child a good strong stable environment. That helicopter accident ruined my—our whole lives.”
“I can imagine.” While Cameron waited for her to go on with what had brought her into the police station, the two women sat in silence. Eventually, Tiffany picked up the grocery bag filled with the dead roses and held them out to the detective.
“Someone is stalking me. I have this horrible feeling that he’s going to kill me and my baby.”
“Who’s stalking you?”
“I have no idea,” Tiffany said. “I don’t even know anyone here.”
“How did you end up here if you don’t know anyone?” Cameron asked.
“I thought it was a blessing,” Tiffany said. “A couple of weeks after Jeff got killed, I got this e-mail from a human resources lady at Epic Technologies. Somehow, they had gotten my resume and the company president, Stan Frost, was looking for an executive assistant. The salary and benefits were unbelievable. I told them that I was pregnant and they said it didn’t matter. He even offered six months maternity leave.”
“Even though you were already pregnant when they offered you the job?” Tiffany nodded her head. “They paid mymoving costs and found me a nice single family house in a great neighborhood. I thought it was all an answer to my prayers until these dead roses start showing up on my doorstep with these sick notes.” Cameron peered inside the bag at the long stem dead roses. She counted eleven roses. “Is this all that you have received?” “One has been on my welcome mat when I have come home from work every day. There’s a note tied to it with a black ribbon.” “Every night?” Tiffany nodded her head. “The notes are getting worse every day. I’m scared to go home.” Cameron reached inside to take out the stack of plain white cards. She read the first note:
Violets are Blue,
In Twelve Days,
you will be dead, too.“Slumming, Gates?” the trooper asked when he returned to his desk. An older, career patrolman with a buzz cut, he glared a warning for the detective to not be poaching his case.
“I was just giving the ATM Bandit a ride here in the back of my cruiser.”
She handed Tiffany the rose with its card. “Ms. Ambrose looked like she could use some help.”
“Which is what I’m giving her.” He handed Tiffany a report. “You can sign this complaint and we’ll make sure a patrol car keeps tabs in your neighborhood.”
Eyeing the report, Tiffany looked up to Cameron. “Is that all?”
“This sicko is making death threats,” the detective said. “His latest note said three days.”
Tiffany dug out the rose with the latest note attached to it in black ribbon. “In three days, he’s going to kill me and my baby.”
“Has he broken into your home?”
“No direct contact? You can’t even give me a name of who to question.”
“So after he attacks me and I ask him his name, then you’ll help me?” The tears on Tiffany’s face shone brightly against her red face.
“Right now,” the patrolman said, “all you have is vague threats.”
“I wouldn’t call a written count down a vague threat,” Cameron said. His glare ordered the detective to stay out of the conversation.
“It’s most likely some warped bored teenager who lives in your neighborhood getting his jollies by upsetting you.”
Sobbing, Tiffany Ambrose gathered up the roses in the grocery bag. “I told Mr. Frost that this would all be a big waste of time. I was right. I wish I was wrong. When it’s too good to be true, it usually is. I never should have left Norfolk.” Sobbing, she ran out of the squad room and was gone.
Cameron tore her eyes from the door through which the desperate woman had run to the patrolman, who rolled his eyes as a comment. Women!
Men! Cameron thought in reply.
“What would you do, Gates?” the officer called after her when she got up to leave.
“My job,” she replied. “Find the guy and stop him.”
Countdown to murder. Is that really such a unique Modus Operand? Her morning hours occupied with paperwork, Cameron’s mind kept straying back to Tiffany Ambrose and her tearful exit.
While the trooper was right in some aspects, a nagging pang in the detective’s gut kept telling her that there was more to this case than a youthful prank to scare a pregnant widow.
While eating her tuna fish sandwich and bag of chips, Cameron took a couple of minutes to do a search of the crime database for similar MOs of stalkers or killers leaving a single dead rose daily for their intended victims leading up to the murder.
The search produced an extensive list. Okay. Let’s narrow it down. She typed in the search for “A dead rose, plus a threat in the form of a poem.”
That reduced it some.
“A dead rose, plus a threat with D-day being on the thirteenth day.” The list was reduced to one: Eddie Palmer. Suspected in two murders. Convicted in one. Now that’s more like it. While munching on the chips, She read: Victim One was his girlfriend, who was found murdered on the thirteenth day after receiving a dead rose daily for twelve days. She received threatening poems along with the roses.
Police suspected but was unable to pin the murder on Palmer, who left their small Kansas town and enlisted in the Marines. Five years later, his then pregnant girlfriend started receiving roses with threatening poems. Thirteen days later, she was found murdered. Stabbed to death like girlfriend Number One.
Cameron sat up in her seat. This has to be the guy! She continued to read. Eddie Palmer was arrested and, since the victim was enlisted in the Marines, tried in military court for murder. Found guilty.
It can’t be. He must have gotten out and be up to his old tricks again.
Eddie Palmer died in prison eight years ago.
It can’t be. Our guy must be a copycat! Cameron scanned the names in the case file for the investigator and those connected with the case. One of them had to be involved with Tiffany Ambrose, whose late husband was also in the military, to be terrorizing her.
She found a name that jumped out at her from the computer monitor. Lead Prosecutor: Joshua Thornton, Judge Advocate General. Also known as Cameron Gates’ husband. Well, at least I know where to find him. “Hello, handsome,” Cameron purred into the phone when Joshua Thornton, Hancock County’s prosecuting attorney, across the state line from her jurisdiction, answered the phone.
“You’re late,” he said. Wondering if she had forgotten about a lunch date with her husband, Cameron snatched her cell phone and checked the calendar. “Late for what?”
“Our lunch time bootie call.” She could hear the smile in his voice. “Usually, when we don’t meet for lunch, you call at noon and talk dirty to me. But it’s now almost one o’clock.” He uttered an exaggerated sigh. “I guess the honeymoon is over.”
“I was working,” she explained about her encounter with Tiffany Ambrose in the squad room. “I’d like, for once, to catch a killer before he hits the victim.”
Joshua’s tone turned serious. “How can I help?”
“Tell me about Eddie Palmer.” There was silence from the other end of the line. “Why are you asking about him?” he finally asked. “He can’t be your guy. He’s dead.”
“Maybe he had a friend or fan who’s emulating him,” she suggested. “Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed the similarities between Tiffany’s circumstance and Eddie Palmer’s murders.”
“Eddie Palmer killed women who he had impregnated,” Joshua said. “The father of Tiffany’s baby died in Afghanistan. The only similarity is the roses and threats in the form of poems. I don’t think that’s such an original MO. Look elsewhere.”
Cameron was grasping. “Can you at least check to see if anyone connected with Eddie Palmer or his case could be using his MO? Look to see if there’s a connection between anyone connected to him and Tiffany Ambrose. Even a cell mate from when he was in prison.”
“His cellmate killed him. He’s still in jail,” Joshua replied. “But I’ll check. Only because I love you.”
“I love you, too.” Cameron had no sooner hung up and the direct line on her phone rang.
The caller ID read Stan Frost. Where do I know that name? Tiffany’s boss. The owner of Epic Technologies. She answered the phone. “Detective Cameron Gates.”
“Detective Gates, are you the detective that talked to Tiffany Ambrose this morning when she went in to report her stalker?”
For a rich man, Cameron noted an urgent tone is his voice. He didn’t sound as smooth talking as most rich folks she encountered in her job.
“Stan Frost,” he replied. “Tiffany Ambrose is my … executive assistant.”
The detective’s ears perked up when she heard him pause before saying that she was his executive assistant.
What were you going to say, Mr. Frost? She fought to keep from asking. Lover? But then, Cameron recalled that Tiffany was pregnant when she accepted the job hundreds of miles away and in another state, away from her family and friends. But then, some men love pregnant women.
“Tiffany just called me,” he said. “She had a doctor’s appointment and has been so upset. So she went home early and that sicko left her another rose and note. She had told me about how you tried to help, so I contacted the police department to track you down. Please. I’m a very wealthy man. I can pay you very well. Can you please help? Can you catch this guy?”
“What did the note say on the rose?” “She didn’t read the whole poem to me,” he said. “She only read the highlight. Two more days before he kills her.”
Lieutenant Dugan, Cameron’s boss, was a by-the-book type. Their squad was homicide. Tiffany Ambrose was not dead. Therefore, her problem was not theirs. However, as Cameron had hoped, he saw no reason not to bend the rules in an effort to prevent a homicide instead of waiting for it to happen before taking on the case.
“How much comp time do you have?” Dugan asked the detective.
“You know that,” she replied.
“Take it,” he ordered. “Let’s be proactive for once.”
Cameron was on her way to her cruiser in five minutes. She had no sooner climbed inside before her phone was ringing.
“I called the prison,” Joshua reported. “Palmer had no visitors, friends, or family. No correspondence outside the prison. Nothing. No warped fans. We kept our cases very close to the vest in JAG. Rarely would we let our cases make the news.”
“Maybe it is someone who was connected with the case,” Cameron said. “Jury—”
“It was a trial in a military court,” Joshua said. “We aren’t talking about common citizens who are taken off the streets. These people had years of military experience, plus psychological examinations. If any of them were psychopaths, it would have come out before they were put on a military panel.”
“So it’s just a coincidence that our proposed victim is pregnant. Her late husband was a Navy officer—”
“Palmer was an enlisted man in the Marines,” Joshua said. “Big difference.”
“Tiffany came from Norfolk, which is where Eddie Palmer’s second murder took place. Plus, the killer is using Eddie Palmer’s MO.” Cameron asked, “Do you really buy that there’s no connection, Josh?”
“Do you want me to come out there?” It sounded like a threat made by a parent nagged into submission by a strong-willed child.
“Yes,” she replied. “Meet me at Epic Technologies. Top floor. Stan Frost, president’s office.”
As hard as she tried, when she did, Cameron could not stop the smile that crossed her face when she saw “her silver fox”, Joshua Thornton, enter the lobby on the ground floor of Epic Technologies.
Even while making the transition from mid-to-late forties, Joshua Thornton was one of the most attractive men in the room with his head of silver hair that fell to touch the top of his trench coat’s collar. The transition from auburn hair to silver happened during his five children’s teenaged years. Now only one teenager was left at home.
“What’s your plan?” Joshua asked her after a quick hug and kiss in front of the elevators.
“Identify our suspects and see who has a connection to Eddie Palmer,” she replied. “We don’t have a lot of time left. The last note our killer left said Tiffany had only two days left.” She did not like the grimace that crossed his face. “What?”
“Murder Investigation One-Oh-One,” Joshua said. “Start with the victim.” With his hand blocking the closing of the doors, he held open the elevator door for her to step on before him.
“Right now we don’t have a murder victim,” Cameron said. “We want to keep it that way.”
“Find out who will benefit the most with Tiffany Ambrose out of the way, and that path will lead you to your Dead Rose Killer.”
“Who, I guarantee will have a connection to Eddie Palmer,” she said.
The doors shut and the elevator began its climb to the top floor and Stan Frost’s suite of offices.
“Want to bet?” Joshua asked.
Intrigued, Cameron turned to him. “What do you want to bet?”
“Whether or not our killer has any connection to Eddie Palmer or not,” he said. “If I’m right and the killer has no connection, I win. If the killer does, you win.”
“And what do I win?” A naughty smile crossed her face as she rested her hand around his waist and moved in closer to him. She gazed up into his blue eyes.
He wrapped his arms around her. “Loser gets to be the winner’s love slave for one evening.”
“A bet where there’s no losers? I can get into that type of betting.” She pushed him up against the wall of the elevator and kissed him.
They were in a tight embrace when the elevator doors flew up. At the sound of a woman’s loud gasp, they parted and proceeded to straighten their coats.
A woman dressed in a severe looking gray business suit, which contrasted with her long blond hair and dangerous looking high heels stepped onto the elevator. She clutched a leather binder to her chest. In spite of the humor that Cameron found in the interruption, the new passenger cast a firm glare upon the two of them. She tore her eyes from them to check the buttons for the floor. Her expression turned from chastising to shock. “You’re getting off at the twelfthth floor?”
“Yes.” Cameron smirked at the corporate blonde’s disbelief.
The business woman looked the detective up and down.
Cameron was not your average fast track employee in the world of hi-tech. “We have an appointment with Mr. Frost.” The detective opened her jacket to give her a glimpse of her badge and gun.
Her eyes wide, the woman looked from Cameron to Joshua, who was more befitting the corporate image. The elevator doors opened and the blonde hurried off as fast as her high-heels could carry her.
“That really wasn’t necessary,” Joshua whispered to Cameron.
“I know but it was too much fun to pass up.” She noticed a smirk on his face as he peered down the corridor where the blonde had escaped. “What? I didn’t know you were into corporate types.”
“I’m not.” Joshua took her arm.
“Then why the grin?”
“I was in the military for a very long time,” he said. “I’ve gotten so that I can spot an ex-military from a mile away.”
“Her?” Cameron shook her head. “No.”
“The way they stand. The way they present themselves. Not only was she military, but she was an officer.”
“I wonder if she was a Marine and knew Eddie Palmer.”
“Palmer was enlisted,” Joshua said. “Unless she was his CO, I doubt it.”
They found the corporate blonde in the corner office suite that was home to Stan Frost. Arrogance replaced her fright. Upon seeing Cameron and Joshua stepping through the door, she announced over her shoulder to the administrative assistant behind the desk. “These detectives say they have an appointment with Mr. Frost.”
“Detective Cameron Gates?” the assistant asked in a congenial tone.
With a nod of her head, Cameron added, “And Joshua Thornton to see Mr. Frost and Ms. Ambrose.”
The assistant picked up the phone to announce their arrival.
The blonde told Joshua and Cameron in a challenging tone, “I have a right to know if any of our people are involved in police matters.” She offered her hand to Joshua, not Cameron. “Hannah Pickering. Vice-president in charge of human resources.”
Seeing Stan Frost coming out of his office, she turned on him. “Mr. Frost, why was I not informed that you had an appointment with the police? I had to find out by walking in on them having sex in the elevator.”
“We were not having sex in the elevator,” Cameron said. “We were groping each other. The elevator is too fast for a couple to complete a full sex act. Maybe you have it set that fast for that very reason. By the way—We’re allowed. We married—” She gestured back and forth between them. “—to each other.”
“Now that we’ve announced our personal business to everyone in hearing distance,” Joshua said, “can we get to the matter of our investigation?” Seeing the pregnant woman behind Stan Frost, he asked, “Is this Tiffany Ambrose?” He stepped forward to offer her his hand. “Joshua Thornton. Cameron has invited me to help her with this case.”
“What case?” Hannah objected. “You mean those stupid dead roses?” She turned to the corporate president. “I told you that this was all a prank pulled by some sicko.”
“Hannah, whoever it is, is threatening to kill Tiffany,” the gray-haired man said. “It’s upsetting and it’s not good for her to be upset in her condition.” He reached around her to shake Cameron’s hand. “Thank you so much for coming. Please come into my office. Whatever it takes to make sure Tiffany is safe …Money is no object.”
“If we’re going to have the police on the premises, then I recommend that I be allowed to sit in on this meeting,” Hannah said.
Stan Frost turned around to regard her with a hard glare that would make any employee remember their place.
“It is my duty to know what is going on with our employees,” Hannah repeated in a firm tone.
Cameron was surprised when the company president turned to Tiffany Ambrose to silently ask her reaction. Tiffany consented with a shrug followed by a nod of her head.
“Very well,” the president said before ushering them into his office.
Before following, Cameron turned to Joshua. “Did you see that?”
“They don’t have your average boss and assistant relationship,” she said. “That’s for sure.”
The top floor corner office provided a view of the airport in the landscape. In addition to the desk and conference table, there was a sitting area where Stan Frost made sure Tiffany was comfortable on the sofa before sitting across from her.
Before taking their seats, Cameron and Joshua made a visual sweep of the office. Seeing no personal pictures of family mementos, they exchanged glances before yielding to Stan Frost’s call for them to join him, Tiffany, and Hannah, who had taken a seat in the chair opposite the company president.
Cameron sat next to Tiffany while Joshua pulled up a chair to sit on the other side of the coffee table.
“Tiffany, I understand you started getting these roses almost two weeks ago?” Cameron took out her computer tablet to open to her notes application.
Tiffany nodded her head. “I’ve been getting one a day for the last ten days.”
“Eleven,” Frost corrected her. “Today is day eleven.” He directed his gaze at Cameron. “He says in the notes that on the thirteenth day, he’s going to kill her. That’s the day after tomorrow.”
“We’re going to do everything we can to not let that happen.”
Joshua interrupted, “Can I see the notes that he has been sending her?”
“I made copies of every one.” Frost practically jumped out of his chair in reaching for a folder he had placed on the coffee table in front of him. He handed it to Joshua. “Sick psychopath.” As Joshua opened the folder, he corrected himself. “Except the last one that Tiffany called me about. She hasn’t brought it to me yet.”
“I have it in my briefcase,” Tiffany said.
“Can I see it?” Joshua asked.
With effort, Tiffany pulled up to get out of her seat until Hannah slapped her organizer shut and stood up. “I can get it for you,” she said. “Where is it?”
“My briefcase is in my office. On top of my desk.” With a tired sigh, Tiffany fell back in her seat.
Hannah, her organizer tucked under her arm, hurried out of the office. She left the door open.
“I think we should have the notes you received processed for fingerprints,” Joshua said.
“Sure,” Tiffany said. “I’ll make sure you get them.” She smiled over at Cameron. “The police officer this morning didn’t even offer to do that.”
“It isn’t every day that he runs into cases like this,” the detective said with a shrug. It was the best excuse she could come up with.
“You had told me that you didn’t know anyone in this area when you moved here.”
“No one,” Tiffany replied. “I know it’s crazy, but the position that Mr. Frost offered me was simply too good to pass up.”
“Tiffany has been a treasured asset to my company.” Stan Frost cast her a wide grin. “She’s taken a load off my shoulders. She has a gift for making wise business decisions. That’s not something you learn. It’s something you’re born with.”
“If you don’t mind my asking,” Cameron asked, “how did you find Tiffany? She said that the offer was quite sudden.”
“I wasn’t even looking for a job,” Tiffany recalled with a high-pitched giggle. “My husband had only just died. I was still reeling, not really sure what was going to become of me when Hannah sent me that e-mail.”
Joshua looked up from the notes he was reading to look over at Stan Frost. “Sounds like a real stroke of luck that you got such an offer out of the blue when you needed it so badly.”
“Tiffany has been an answer to my prayers.” Stan smiled over at her.
Casting a sly glance in Joshua’s direction, Cameron asked Tiffany, “Your husband was in the Navy.”
“He was a lieutenant,” she said.
“And you lived in Norfolk?”
“Ever since we got married four years ago,” Tiffany answered.
“Four years ago,” Joshua repeated. “The Palmer murder was twelve years ago. He died eight years ago. That’s four years before Tiffany and her husband moved into the area.”
“Who’s Eddie Palmer?” Tiffany asked in a worried tone.
Stan reached for her hand.
“A murderer who’s MO was the same as that of the guy threatening you,” Cameron said.
“Then maybe this Palmer guy wasn’t your killer,” Stan Frost said.
“Yes, he was.” Joshua cocked his head at Cameron while replying, “We did get the right guy.”
“Tiffany!” A plump young man dressed in ill-fitting khaki slacks and a sweater rushed into the office and over to where Tiffany was sitting. He hurtled Cameron, who was sitting in his way, before plopping down next to the pregnant woman. “I was outside talking to Beverly and she told me that you got another death note. Are you okay?”
“She’s fine, Walter,” Stan insisted.
Whirling around to Joshua, Walter demanded to know, “What are you doing to protect her?”
Cameron answered, “We’re going to stay with her until we catch the creep terrorizing her.”
“That’s not good enough,” Walter said.
“Excuse me,” Cameron said, “who are you?” She turned to Stan. “Who is he?”
“This is Walter Bentley,” Stan said. “Vice President in charge of IT, our computer technology.”
Walter hovered over Tiffany. “I think you should come stay with me. I live in a security building.”
Tiffany fought to stand up. “I’d rather stay in my own home.”
Cameron noticed Joshua craning his neck to peer out the door into the reception area. “You don’t need to worry, Walter. We’ll be with Tiffany every second until this is over.”
“Got it!” Hannah sang out in a chipper tone while hurrying into the office. “Sorry I took so long. I had to go to the ladies room. Bentley, you left your binder on Beverly’s desk.” While reaching over Joshua’s shoulder, the vice president dropped the binder onto the coffee table. Its contents spilled across the tabletop. “Oh, I’m so sorry.”
Joshua, Stan, and Cameron leaned over to help Walter collect the assortment of notes, much of it looking like gibberish to put back into the binder.
“What the—” Stan Frost uttered a curse while lifting up a note on white stationary. “Why—” Sputtering, he held out the note to Joshua.
“What is it?” Hannah asked.
While Stan glared at Walter, whose face turned white with shock, Joshua read out loud:
Roses are dead;
Now they are gone;
And so are you.
Rest in peace.Tiffany shrieked.
“What—” Walter turned to Cameron for help. “I never saw that before in my life.”
“Walter, how could you?” Hannah asked.
“It wasn’t me,” Walter insisted.
“You’re fired!” Stan said before ordering Cameron, “Arrest him.”
“Not before questioning him,” Cameron stood up. “Walter, we need to talk.”
“I didn’t do it.” Walter was near tears. “Tiffany, you have to believe me. I would
never do that to you. I love you. Walter shouted, “Someone planted that in my binder. I’m being framed.” He turned to Cameron. “Can’t you see that?”
Cameron took Walter by the arm. “Of course, I see that,” she said. “Let’s go to one of the conference rooms and talk.”
“Tiffany …” Walter begged as the detective led him out by the arm.
Stan Frost shook his head. “I don’t believe it.”
Tiffany’s eyes filled with tears while she rubbed her stomach. “I don’t either. Walter seemed like such a nice sweet gentle man. Socially awkward, but sweet.”
“Those are always the ones you need to look out for, honey,” Hannah said.
“I need to go call him a lawyer.” Tiffany pulled herself up to her feet.
“Why?” Stan demanded to know.
“Because I can’t believe Walter did it,” she said.
“He was planning to kill you,” Hannah said. “I’ve seen crazies like him before. He’s fixated on you. First chance he gets, he’ll take you out. Believe me.”
“I can’t believe Walter would ever do anything to hurt me.” Tiffany waddled to the door. “I’m going to go call a friend of mine.”
“We have a legal service.” Hannah tucked her organizer under her arm. “I’ll call them.”
Joshua caught Stan by the arm when he tried to follow Hannah and Tiffany out the door. “We need to talk.” The president’s mouth hung open while Joshua closed the door, turned around, and crossed his arms over his chest.
“Do you have something to say to me, Mr. Thornton?”
“When are you planning to tell her?”
“Tell who what?” Gradually, the firm expression softened to one of concern.
“Tiffany,” Joshua replied. “When do you plan to tell her that you’re her father?”
“What—” Stan dropped his façade. “How did you know?”
“I have two daughters,” Joshua said. “Most people, with their dirty minds, would mistake your affection toward Tiffany as something perverted. But I saw it for what it is. Fatherly love. Cameron told me that Tiffany’s mother was single. Riding in like a knight in shining armor right when she needed it—that didn’t just happen. She needed help and your paternal feelings wouldn’t let you not help her.”
Stan Frost went behind his desk and opened a drawer. He removed a yellowed envelope from inside and tossed it onto the center of his desktop. He nodded his head at Joshua. “Read it. It’s all there.”
Joshua picked up the envelope and took out the stationary filled with a woman’s handwriting in cursive. The signature line read Ashley Ambrose.
While Joshua scanned the contents of the letter, Stan told him, “Biggest mistake I ever made in my life. I fell in love with Ashley at first sight. She was my everything, but I didn’t realize it until it was too late. My mother hated her. She was a domineering, prejudiced—even hateful woman.”
“But she was my mother.” Stan nodded his head. “She kept calling Ashley a JAP.”
“Jewish American Princess.”
“When Ashley and I became engaged, my mother was furious,” Stan said. “She ordered me to choose. Her or Ashley.”
Joshua stopped reading and looked across the desk at the company president, whose face was filled with sorrow.
“I chose poorly.”
“You didn’t know Ashley was pregnant,” Joshua noted the contents of the letter.
“She was hurt, which she had every reason to be. She left the area and never looked back.” Stan pointed at the letter. “I never heard from her until she sent me that letter when she was dying.”
“She told Tiffany that you had abandoned them.” Joshua put his finger on the words in the letter. “By the time she realized how much she had hurt Tiffany by poisoning her against you, it was too late.”
“Do you blame her?” Stan dropped down into the chair behind his desk. “I loved Ashley. She’s Tiffany’s mother.”
“Show her this letter,” Joshua said.
“And make Tiffany think her mother was a lying monster?” Stan shook his head. “Tiffany thinks her mother was a saint. I can’t dirty her memory like that.”
“What else can you do?” Joshua asked. “If you tell her that you’re her father, she’ll hate you for having abandoned her. If you show her this letter, you’ll crush the memory she has of her mother.”
“Now you know my dilemma,” Stan said. “As soon as I got that letter, I hired a private investigator to keep tabs on Tiffany. When she was graduating from college, I was at the ceremony to see her cross that stage. When she got married, I crashed her wedding. She never noticed me.”
“And when her husband died, you swooped in to bring her here and keep her safe.” Joshua dropped the letter onto the center of the desk. “What are your intentions?”
“You just said it. Keep her safe.”
“This is a family run company,” Joshua said. “Do you have any ex-wives or children—”
“I never married,” Stan said. “Ashley was the love of my life. The only heirs I have are Tiffany and her baby.”
Joshua leaned over the desk. “Mr. Frost, think about it. Who has the most to lose now that your daughter is on the radar?”
Stan looked up at him.
“You’re the president of a multi-million-dollar company,” Joshua told him. “You brought her in and made her your executive assistant. Don’t tell me that she’s going to stay that. Don’t tell me that you aren’t grooming her to take this chair when you decide to retire.”
“No one knows that she’s my daughter.”
“But you’re grooming her for the fast track.” While Stan stared up at him in silence, Joshua asked, “Who has the most to lose since Tiffany came here? What about your senior vice president?”
“Not him,” Stan said with certainty.
“How can you be so sure?”
“He’s dying,” Stan said. “Prostate cancer. He’s been out for the last six weeks. There’s nothing they can do. He’s got maybe another two weeks to live.” He added, “No one knows about it.”
“No one?” Joshua asked. “Absolutely no one on this planet knows?”
Stan hesitated. “Except the other vice presidents. Hannah and Walter.” He sat up. “Walter Bentley.”
“Who will take the senior vice president’s slot after the current one passes?”
“Tiffany,” Stan replied in a soft voice.
“If she wasn’t here, then who?”
Stan was silent.
“Whoever that is, has the most to lose by Tiffany’s very existence,” Joshua said. “Or, in other words, that person has the most to gain from her murder.”
The cell phone vibrated on Joshua’s hip. While Stan gazed up at him with wide eyes, he checked the text message on the screen. “Cameron’s in trouble.”
The elevator doors flew open and the EMTs came rushing out with a gurney between them.
“This way!” Beverly, the president’s administrative assistant, directed them down the corridor to the conference room.
Lieutenant Dugan came out from the corner of the elevator where he had squeezed on. He followed the EMTs into the conference room where Joshua was bent over Cameron, whose body was crumpled in the corner. “What happened?” the police lieutenant asked.
Stan, Hannah, Tiffany, and the assistant grabbed the opportunity to crowd into the doorway to hear Joshua’s answer.
“She got jumped,” Joshua said. “She was questioning a suspect and somehow he grabbed her gun and beat her with it.”
“We have serious head trauma,” one of the EMT yelled into his radio.
“What about this suspect?” the lieutenant asked Joshua.
“He got away,” Joshua replied.
“Where were you?” the lieutenant shouted.
“Hey, don’t use that tone with me,” Joshua said. “I don’t work for you. Cameron was here on her own time trying to help this woman and I was here because she’s my wife. Now my wife could die and you’re accusing me of—”
“Coming through!” The EMTs plowed in between the two men with the gurney with Cameron loaded on it. Her face was covered with an oxygen mask. A bloody towel was wrapped around her head.
Joshua fell in behind them to follow them out the door.
In the doorway, Stan grabbed Joshua by the arm. “Where’s Bentley?”
“Gone,” Joshua said. “And he’s got Cameron’s gun with him.”
“If he’s smart, he’ll leave the area,” Lieutenant Dugan said.
“I’m sorry.” Joshua pulled his arm out of Stan’s grasp. “I have to go. My wife needs me.”
Joshua ran down the corridor to slip onto the elevator with the gurney.
Tiffany clung to Stan Frost who turned his attention to the police lieutenant. “What about Tiffany?”
“We’ll do what we can to protect her,” the police lieutenant said. “Problem is, we have a marathon going on in the area tomorrow morning and thousands of runners and their families have poured into the area. Most of my people are on crowd patrol detail.”
“This maniac is loose with a gun!” Stan shouted. “He’s promised to kill Tiffany and her baby. She needs protection.”
“I can stay with her,” Hannah offered.
“Can you take her to your house?” the police lieutenant asked Stan. “Is that secure?”
“Take her there. Stay with her,” Lieutenant Dugan said. “Give me a couple of hours to switch some officers around and I’ll have someone there by eight o’clock tonight. I promise.”
Stan Frost’s home was a sprawling five bedroom rancher in the suburbs of Pittsburgh set deep in the woods off the main road. By six o’clock, it was dark in the dreary winter weather. The trees looming over the rancher seemed to make it darker.
At the sound of the doorbell, Stan put down the book he was reading and went to the front door to find Hannah waiting on his doorstep. Her briefcase was tucked under her arm.
“I’m sorry to have bothered you at home, Stan,” she said in a breathless voice, “but after you had left, the auditor from the IRS came in. He says you had a meeting for six o’clock.”
“That meeting is scheduled for next week,” Stan said.
Hannah shook her head. “That’s what I thought. But he’s there and he won’t meet with me. I tried to tell him about what has been going on, but he says that if you jerk him around, then he’ll jerk you around. That’s what he said.”
Stan glanced over his shoulder into the house.
“How’s Tiffany?” Hannah asked.
“She’s napping. How, I have no idea.”
“Are the police here yet?” She stepped inside.
He hesitated. “It’ll be another hour before they get here.”
“I can stay with her.” She grinned at him. “I did used to be a Marine. I know how to handle a gun.”
Stan shook his head at her. “You surprise me.”
“What?” she asked. “That I’m woman enough to care, or man enough to step up to bat when I’m needed.”
He took his coat out of the closet. “I guess I should go. Good-bye, Hannah.”
“Good night, Stan.”
Through the front window, she watched the tail lights of Stan’s Cadillac make their way down the long driveway and turn onto the road. After making sure he was gone, she opened up her briefcase. She slipped on a pair of latex gloves and took the nine-millimeter Beretta out. She checked the cartridge in the chamber and made her way down the hallway leading to the bedrooms.
She found the guest in the last bedroom down the hallway, the room closest to the master suite.
Slowly, she opened the door to slip inside the darkened room. She could see the form of the sleeping woman under the covers. Careful not to make a noise on the wooden floor, she crept up to the side of the bed, aimed her gun, and shot repeatedly at the bed.
The room filled with the smell of hot gun powder.
The sound of the gunshots was still echoing in her ears when Hannah became aware of the door to the closet opening behind her.
She was whirling around when the baton hit her across the back of the neck to send her down on all fours next to the bed. The gun was kicked out of her reach. In the darkness, she could see two shadows standing over her.
“Hannah Pickering, you’re under arrest for attempted murder,” she heard Detective Cameron Gates say as she slapped handcuffs onto her wrists.
Cameron Gates? It can’t be. I saw her wheeled out on a gurney after Bentley escaped.
“Attempted?” Hannah asked while Cameron dragged her up onto her feet. She looked over at the bed to see that she had blown away two pillows.
Joshua Thornton flipped on the light switch.
Hannah blinked at the light in her eyes. “You played me.”
Joshua and Cameron laughed loudly. “Oh, boy, oh, boy!” Joshua said. “We played you good.”
“Do I look stupid to you?” Cameron asked her. “I saw you flipping out when Josh and I showed up at the office today. Why did you think Tiffany wouldn’t go to the police? When playing down your terror game as a prank didn’t work, you knew you had to frame someone else. It was a piece of cake to slip that note into Bentley’s binder and then trip to dump it in front of us.”
“Walter Bentley was the perfect guy to frame,” Joshua said. “He has a crush on Tiffany, plus he was your competition for the senior VP slot, which you knew was coming up. Due to your seniority, you were a shoe in until Tiffany Ambrose came to town.”
“In your job as HR VP,” Cameron said, “even though Stan didn’t tell you he was Tiffany’s father, you were able to find that out with a thorough background check. You knew he was grooming her to be your boss and you just couldn’t let that happen.”
“So you decided to first terrorize her in hopes that she’d go away quietly,” Joshua said. “When that didn’t work, you decided to kill her.”
Hannah looked from Joshua to Cameron, who smirked at her. “I want a lawyer.”
Joshua and Cameron were enjoying a romantic dinner in their booth at Cricksters, a retro cafe in their hometown of Chester, West Virginia, located directly across the Pennsylvania state line. After a filling dinner of deluxe cheeseburgers and chips, they were sharing their personalized sundae for two.
Grinning, Cameron licked the ice cream and hot fudge from her lips.
Joshua grinned back at her before turning his attention to the dessert.
“Tiffany Ambrose had her baby this morning,” she announced. “A boy. Guess what she named him.”
“What?” he asked.
“Jeffrey Stanley Cameron.”
He laughed. “That’s a mouthful.”
“Jeffrey was his father’s name,” she explained. “Stan Frost is her father—”
“He told her.”
“Yes.” Cameron smiled softly. “But she already knew. Her mother had told her everything before she passed. Tiffany didn’t know how to tell him. She didn’t know he knew.” She took another spoonful of the ice cream with a generous helping of hot fudge and whipped topping.
“It’s good that it’s all out in the open,” Joshua said.
“It’s never a good idea to keep things a secret.” She met his gaze. “You did see the background check on Hannah Pickering.”
“Yes, I did.” He put down the spoon.
“She was in the Marines, like Eddie Palmer,” Cameron said.
“But they did not serve together,” he said.
“She served in administration,” Cameron said, “human resources to be exact.”
Joshua slowly shook his head. “You certainly do your homework.”
“Oh, yes, I do,” she said. “Remember our bet?”
He nodded his head. “Hannah Pickering was Eddie Palmer’s personnel officer in the Marines when he was arrested, tried, and convicted. His file, including the case file, crossed her desk. It is entirely possible—”
“Conceivable,” she said.
“That Hannah Pickering stole his MO.”
“So the two cases were connected,” Cameron said.
“Hannah had nothing to do with the Eddie Palmer case.” He shook his finger at her. “When we made this bet, we were talking about a friend or detective or someone who was involved in the case—”
“We never said where the line was drawn,” Cameron said. “We said connected. Hannah Pickering was connected to Eddie Palmer. I was right, you were wrong. I win the bet.”
Joshua fell back in his seat.
Cocking her head at him, Cameron shot him a naughty grin.
“What do you want from me?” He chuckled while he asked.
She gazed across the table at him while she picked up the spoon from the sundae. One of her eyebrows arched as she slowly licked the hot fudge from the back of the spoon.
Merry Christmas from Lauren and Gnarly
and Stevie (as a kitten) and Glenda
Stop by Christmas Day
at Book Readers Heaven for
A Lucky Dog