Authors: Debra Webb
“You were a cop before becoming a PI?” Heath asked as he and Clint settled at the breakfast table.
“That’s right,” Clint confirmed.
Heath grunted. “You went to law school, too, I hear.”
“Heath,” Natalie sent him a warning look as she poured the tea, “do not embarrass me or yourself.”
“I don’t blame him for changing his mind. Lawyers—” he glanced at his sister “—my sister not included, are a pain in the butt.”
She placed the cup of coffee in front of him and sent him a disapproving look.
“They are a different breed,” Clint agreed.
With tea and coffee served, Natalie joined them at the table.
“April says Suzanna and Leonard quit.”
Suzanna’s words echoed inside Natalie. “I suppose it was time they retired.”
“Seems strange to me.”
“I find it strange,” Clint said, “that you were at the BMW dealership this week and a mechanic there, Mike Beckett, tampered with Natalie’s car.”
Natalie started to demand what Clint was thinking when Heath looked from Clint to her. “Is he serious?”
“I am,” Clint answered. “Someone tampered with the air bag in Natalie’s car. She could have been killed in the crash.”
“You crashed your car?” Heath threw up his hands. “Nobody ever tells me anything.”
She and Clint would talk later. For now Natalie kept her temper in check. “The air bag launched and I crashed into a car in a parking lot. No one was hurt. Other than the few bruises and a couple of abrasions I sustained.”
Heath shifted his attention back to Clint. “You’re sure it wasn’t just a factory malfunction.”
“It was no malfunction.”
Heath scrubbed a hand over his face. “Well, then, I guess I should have paid more attention to the bastard is all I can say.”
“What do you mean?” Natalie’s heart nearly stopped. How could Heath know anything about this?
“The knucklehead called me a few days ago and said you were going to get hurt but he could stop it from happening for the right price.”
“That’s why you went to see him?” Clint pressed.
Heath nodded. “Only he wasn’t there. The shop foreman said Beckett had been off all week. Some kind of family emergency. I thought he was a nutcase but I wasn’t going to risk Nat’s safety so I went to see him, yeah. Did the cops arrest him?”
Natalie couldn’t breathe. She clasped her hands in her lap so no one could see them shake.
“He was found at home yesterday,” Clint told him. “Murdered.”
“Damn.” Heath turned to Natalie again. “What’s going on, Nat? Why the hell didn’t you tell me about this?”
She shook her head, not trusting her voice.
“We believe,” Clint said, drawing his attention, “someone hired Beckett to tamper with the air bag and then maybe that same person silenced him.”
“This doesn’t make sense.” Heath pushed away his coffee. “Who would want to hurt you? You haven’t been getting those threatening letters again, have you?”
Shock radiated through Natalie. “What?”
“Remember? About two weeks before your accident you started getting these letters. You know,” he glanced at Clint, “the kind done with words cut out of a magazine or newspaper and then glued on the page. I was here when you opened the second one. You promised to call the cops, but I don’t think you did. Then everything happened and I forgot about it until just now. You made me promise not to tell anyone. You thought it was about that damned case.”
“Thompson versus Rison Medical?” Clint asked.
“Yeah, that’s the one.”
The image of a page with cut and pasted words swam before her eyes.
I know the truth, do you?
A few days later a second one had come.
Are you really going to let this happen?
“I never got the chance to call the police.” The words were scarcely a whisper. She had been very upset by the letters because she knew what they meant...she had known something then that eluded her now.
Why couldn’t she remember what it meant? What truth?
Clint’s voice as he answered his cell dragged her away from the troubling thoughts.
“I understand.” He ended the call and put his phone away. “We need to speak privately.”
Heath stood. “I have to get back to the plant.”
Natalie managed to get to her feet without swaying. “I’m glad you came by.” She loved her family. She wished they had more time together. Though April had spent most nights with her for months, they never really talked the way they used to.
After she had assured Heath she would keep him informed and shown him out, she turned to the man waiting in the middle of the entry hall. Judging by the grim face he wore, the news wasn’t good.
“Beckett’s girlfriend claims he was blackmailing someone about
. The morning he was murdered he was supposed to meet with that person. Harper and Cook are on their way here. Is there anything you want to tell me before they arrive?”
Ice chilled Natalie’s veins. “There’s something in my closet you need to see.”
Clint waited at the door while Natalie crossed to the far side of her walk-in closet. She stared at a wicker laundry hamper for a moment before opening it. The little gasp that followed had him moving toward her.
She reached into the hamper and then drew back, her expression somewhere between shock and fear. “It’s gone.”
“What’s gone?” He peered into the empty hamper.
“The gun.” She met his gaze. “Yesterday Suzanna told me she’d found a gun and bloody clothes in my room and that she couldn’t protect me anymore. I had no idea what she meant, and then last night I found a white garbage bag in the hamper.” She closed her eyes and shook her head.
“You’re thinking the clothes and gun were from when you shot the intruder.”
“Except the gun disappeared along with the intruder.” She stared into the empty hamper again. “How could I not remember changing clothes and hiding the gun before calling the police? My brain tells me that I ran out of the house and called 9-1-1.”
The doorbell rang, echoing through the house. Natalie looked stricken.
“Is there anything else you haven’t told me? Anything at all?” Clint might be a sucker but he believed her. She needed to be straight with him. Any secrets she held back could create serious problems going forward. With a man dead, this was no time to hold back.
“I think my sister
having an affair.” Natalie let go a shaky breath. “My brain keeps replaying these voices and this soft laugher. One of the voices belongs to April, the other to a man. The voices wake me up and I follow the sounds to April’s bedroom—the one she slept in growing up and uses whenever she stays the night. For the past several weeks it’s happened every night. No one’s there, of course, but it has to mean something. Once the voices wake me up, I go to the stairs and I remember snippets of my fall.”
Clint braced his hands on his hips and contemplated the possibilities. “Why do you think that means she’s having an affair? Maybe her husband was here with her.”
Natalie hugged her arms around herself. “I’ve tried to convince myself the male voice was her husband’s, but in my heart I know that’s not true. David and I were never really friends. He certainly wouldn’t have spent the night here. Frankly, at the time, April wouldn’t have either unless she and David had quarreled.”
Clint nodded. “All right.”
The doorbell sounded again. She flinched.
“For now we keep this between us.” No need to put her through the kind of interrogation associated with being a suspect in a homicide until they sorted out what the hell was going on around here.
“It’s bad enough that I’ve impeded the investigation into the intruder I’m certain I shot,” she protested. “I can’t have you breaking the law for me by doing the same in a homicide investigation. This has gone too far already, Clint.”
“Let me worry about the homicide investigation.” He had no intention of hindering anything. “We shouldn’t keep them waiting.”
The doorbell launched into its classic tune a third time before Clint reached the door. Natalie waited in the great room. She needed a moment to pull herself together. He sure as hell hoped she wasn’t holding back anything else.
He opened the door as Harper was calling his cell. Harper ended the call and dropped his phone back into the pocket of his suit jacket. “Everything okay?”
Anytime a person of interest knew the police were en route and took his time getting to the door it created suspicion.
“Besides a dead mechanic who tampered with my client’s car?” Clint gestured for the two detectives to enter. “Everything is just peachy.”
Harper sent him a sidelong glance. “Where’s Ms. Drummond?”
Clint ignored Harper’s skeptical tone. The man was always overly suspicious when it came to murder. “This way.”
As they joined her in the great room, Natalie summoned a faint smile. Clint wished he could take some of the worry off her shoulders. So far he was batting zero where her peace of mind was concerned.
“Lieutenant Harper and Detective Cook are here about the mechanic who may have tampered with your car,” Clint explained.
“Ms. Drummond.” Harper nodded as he took a seat on the sofa across from where she sat. “I’m sorry to bother you with more questions, but unfortunately it’s necessary.”
Natalie was nervous. Harper would notice. Natalie had tried a number of high-profile cases. The idea of the woman who’d come so close to being the youngest partner in such a prestigious firm being nervous under any circumstances was completely out of character.
Spending as much time with her as he had the past few days, Clint got it. The brain injury had done a number on her and her confidence in herself. A great deal of what an attorney did relied completely upon the ability to recall and analyze the facts as well as the law. The injury had taken away, at least to some degree, her ability to recall facts as well as the sequence of past events. How could she assess the problem if parts were missing or out of order? She had every right to be nervous and uncertain. Someone was taking advantage of her vulnerability.
As Harper started his questions, Cook took his cue from Clint and opted to stand. The young detective had chosen Clint as his role model. Clint had tried repeatedly to discourage him, but he was one determined guy. Clint liked him, as well. Shortly after joining the BPD’s Special Problems Unit, he’d helped Cook prepare for the detective’s exam. They’d been friends since.
The team had formed a strong bond—one carried beyond the job. They were like family.
“Ma’am, you stated that when the intruder entered your home you took the .38 that belonged to your father and fired it at him.”
Clint’s attention shifted back to Natalie. She nodded. “That’s correct.”
“You dropped the weapon, left the intruder wounded and ran from the house to call the police?”
“Yes. I might have reacted differently in the past,” she admitted. “The TBI altered certain things about my personality, at least for now.”
“You believe the intruder took the weapon and left while you were waiting outside for the police?”
“I do, yes.”
She relaxed a bit. Clint did the same.
“Where on your property did you wait? Were you near the house?” Harper asked.
“No.” She shook her head emphatically. “I waited in the street. I was terrified. I even knocked on the front door of my closest neighbor, but no one was home.”
Clint had read the report. She hadn’t mentioned going to the neighbor’s house in her initial statement. If she was remembering more details, that was a good thing. If she was confusing the facts, that was not. He hoped the former was the case. If Harper didn’t mention the point, Clint would. Later.
Harper flipped back through the pages of his notepad. Clearly he’d picked up on the discrepancy. “You didn’t mention going to the neighbor’s house in your statement.”
Natalie frowned. “I was upset. I must have forgotten to mention it. No one was home so it wasn’t relevant.”
Harper scratched a few words on his notepad. “Your father owned a Smith & Wesson .38. That’s the weapon you used on the intruder?”
“Yes. My father owned it for as long as I can remember. I suppose I should have registered it in my name after his death. I simply never got around to it.”
“Had you fired the weapon before?”
“No.” She glanced at Clint for the first time. Her tension rising again. “I took a course on weapon safety after I inherited the house and the gun, but other than the course and the intruder, I’ve never fired any weapon.”
“Ma’am, did Lieutenant Russell have someone swab your hand for gun powder residue?”
“No. He didn’t believe there had been an intruder or a gun. I didn’t think of that myself until days later or I would have insisted the test be done.”
Tension nudging him, Clint moved to stand behind Natalie. “Where is this going, Harper?”
“The slug removed from Beckett’s chest was a .38,” Harper said, his face somber. “The ballistics was an exact match to the slug we recovered from the trash in his bathroom where he’d tended his first gunshot wound. The one we believe he sustained here.”
Natalie’s hand went to her throat as she looked over her shoulder at Clint.
“I thought Beckett died from a single gunshot wound to the chest,” Clint argued. “How did you miss the second gunshot?”
“The shot to the chest is what killed him,” Harper said. “He’d already patched up the other wound and changed clothes. We didn’t know about it until we found the evidence of the cleanup in the bathroom. I called the ME’s office and got confirmation about the second wound.”
Natalie said, “Wait, are you saying the weapon taken from my home was used to kill him?”
“Did you recover the weapon?” Clint asked, his own tension ramping up. If the housekeeper found the .38 here and Natalie saw it just last night, how the hell could it be the same weapon?
Harper shook his head. “The shooter took it with him...or
“The ME estimated time of death at what time?” Clint knew damn well Harper had that piece of information. For whatever reason he’d chosen not to share it up front.
“Between nine and midnight on Wednesday night.” Harper turned his attention back to Natalie. “Ma’am, have you ever had any dealings with Beckett beyond having your personal vehicle serviced at the shop where he worked?”
She shook her head. “I didn’t know his name before this...and to my knowledge I never met him.”
“Does anyone else in your family or a close friend use that dealership?”
“The manager said my brother had bought a car there for his wife. I’m not aware of anyone else using it. My sister and her husband prefer Mercedes.”
Harper closed his notepad and stuffed it back into his jacket pocket. “Ma’am, if you think of anything else that might help our investigation, Hayes knows how to reach me.”
The pointless meeting ended and Clint escorted the two detectives to the door. “You could have asked those questions when you called.”
Harper shrugged. “Then I wouldn’t have seen her reaction. She’s hiding something, my friend. And you know it.”
“Since I was here with her all night Wednesday night, we know she’s not your shooter.”
“I never thought she was,” Harper admitted. “But this guy had a connection to her or to someone close to her.”
“Did you find evidence at the scene or are you going solely on the girlfriend’s testimony? We both know emotional witnesses are rarely good ones.”
“Watch your back, Hayes,” Harper warned. “Something’s up with this family.”
Cook kept his head down as he followed the senior detective out the door.
Yeah, well, Clint was well aware that the Drummonds had more secrets than they wanted to share.
Who didn’t have secrets?
* * *
the window watching the two detectives leave. The man she’d shot was dead. Her father’s gun had been used to shoot him a second time. The same bloodstained gun she had seen in her laundry hamper last night.
Clint joined her at the window. “I was here with you when Beckett was murdered. Whatever you’re thinking, you had nothing to do with his death.”
“Someone close to me did.” Emotion swelled into her throat. How could she believe her sister or her brother had done this? April was the one behaving so irrationally, but it was Heath who had gone to the dealership looking for Beckett. He was the one Beckett had contacted with a blackmail threat.
She closed her eyes. Why would Beckett or anyone else want to hurt her? What had she done to make anyone that angry?
“I can think of only two reasons anyone would want you out of the way, Natalie. You’re either standing in the way of something or you know something they want to hide.”
He said the words softly but there was nothing soft about the meaning. “I know. I just can’t remember what it is.”
“We will find the answer.”
“I don’t want anyone else to end up dead.” She turned to face him. “If my sister or my brother are somehow involved or if they’re targets, too...” She closed her eyes and struggled to slow the emotions whirling inside her. Somewhere on this journey she lost the ability to keep her wits about her.
Warm fingers brushed her cheek, stealing her breath and at the same time soothing her frayed nerves. She opened her eyes and searched his as he spoke. “We should have a meeting with your family and warn them about the situation.”
She forced the softer emotions aside and gave him a skeptical look. “Warn them or assess their reaction to what we know so far?”
“Both. We should talk to Suzanna and Leonard, as well. Suzanna may know more than she’s told you.”
“She said she couldn’t protect me anymore. I don’t know what that means.”
“We’ll find out. I’m certain you’re skilled in how to approach a hostile witness.”
Natalie thought of the way April had behaved and then Suzanna’s abrupt departure. And even Heath’s unexpected visit. “I guess I never expected the hostile witness to be a member of my family.”
“Sometimes family is the most hostile of all.”
She searched his face. As silly as it was, she had memorized every line and angle. His eyes were the part that tugged at her the most, so very dark and tempting. His eyes made her want to be closer...to know him more intimately. If only she dared permit herself to indulge in those feelings again. A relationship required trust. She didn’t trust herself—how could she expect anyone else to have faith in her?
“You don’t doubt me, do you?” she asked. His answer was suddenly, inexplicably important to her.
“I believe you’ve told me everything you feel is relevant.”
“You’re evading the question, counselor.” She wanted him to trust her. No, she needed him to...at least on some level.
“You hold back what you’re unsure about. I need you to trust me with your darkest secrets, Natalie. You’re aware of how important full disclosure is to any case.”
There was certainly no denying that charge. “The only things I haven’t told you are the vague images I see in my dreams or hallucinations. At first it was nothing more than pages of briefs or reports. The words fall from the pages into a pile before igniting. It wasn’t until after Heath mentioned the threatening letters that I remembered receiving them. Typically that’s the way it works. If a memory is triggered it comes to the surface. Otherwise it just stays buried somewhere in my gray matter.”