"Are you insane?" Danny yelled in my ear as soon as he started the van again.
An older man pumping gas glanced our way.
I slumped down in my seat and glared at Danny. "Shut up and drive to the agency."
He matched my glare but pulled onto the road.
I knew no place was safe now, not the office, not my apartment. But I needed to get my car. Assuming it hadn't been impounded and logged as evidence by now.
Danny kept his attention on the road and a death grip on the steering wheel until we'd put several blocks between us and Donna's apartment. It wasn't until we were merging back onto the freeway that he turned to me. "So, want to tell me why you're doing this?"
"Going to the agency? I need my car."
"No! Setting a date with the ADA."
I leaned forward, cranking up the AC. The forced air cooled off my face and neck and gave me a moment to think clearly. "He knows who I am."
"I gathered that," Danny conceded.
"I'm buying myself some time."
"So you have no intention of keeping this date?"
I didn't answer right away.
"James…" Danny warned.
I jerked toward him as much as the seatbelt allowed. "Look he knows who I am and what I do. Don't you think it's a good idea if I find out what else he knows?"
"No," he said, emphatically.
"What if he has info about the judge? About how he was killed or the murder weapon or something else that could give us a hint who Donna was working for? In case you haven't noticed, we're at a big fat zero for leads."
Danny clenched his teeth together. But he didn't yell, which I took as a good sign.
"Look, I distrust Aiden as much as you do—" I continued.
"I doubt that!" Danny spat back.
But I let it go.
"—but I'm out of other ideas. If he can help—"
"Help?" Danny jumped on me again. "I thought you said the plan was to milk him for info, not throw yourself on the mercy of the DA's office."
"I don't throw myself anywhere," I countered. "But if Aiden does believe me, maybe he can do something."
Danny turned on me, steam practically pouring from his ears. "You're nuts—you know that?"
I threw my hands up. "Isn't this exactly what you and Levine were cooking up for me to do last night? Turn myself in, talk to the ADA?"
"I wasn't cooking up anything," he countered. "I was trying to help your sorry self stay out of jail."
"Gee, my hero," I said, sarcasm dripping from my words.
"Besides, that was before."
"Before both of our prints ended up all over the apartment of a murdered woman."
I bit my lip, realizing how true that was. "I'm sorry I dragged you into this."
Danny shook his head and let out a deep breath. "Jamie, that's not what I meant, and you know it."
"What I know is that I'm tired of looking over my shoulder, Danny. I need to find the person behind all of this so I can get back to pleasant work, like spying on cheating husbands. I need some peace, some quiet, and a full night's sleep."
"Yeah, well the way you're going, it will be in a five by six cell," he shot back.
We pulled up to BondAgency, behind my car, which, thankfully, was unassaulted by the cops.
Danny cut the engine and turned to me. "Look, this whole meeting thing is stupid and dangerous."
"I need to go."
"I won't be a part of it," he warned.
I narrowed my eyes at him. This entire conversation had left a bad taste in my mouth, and this was the last straw. I flung open the door and jumped out.
"You know what, that's great. It's just fine with me. In fact, stay away from me. I don't need you tonight."
Something flashed in his eyes, but it was gone too quickly for me to register the emotion.
"You can't go in without protection."
"Oh, I never said that. I simply said I don't need you. I've got my girls. Them, I can count on."
I slammed the door and stomped to my car.
* * *
I spent the afternoon driving, seething, and grasping at anything to help me identify Donna's killer. I called Maya to run every cross check she could against Donna and the judge, fishing for a common third party. Of course, her resources were a bit limited, the police having taken over the office by then, but she did her best on her personal laptop at the Starbucks down the street. Caleigh went to work on trying to reconstruct Donna's last movements, posing as a friend of the deceased from "back home" as she chatted with neighbors, friends, and casting agents. And Sam set up surveillance on Donna's apartment, trying to keep tabs on what the police found. By the time sunset peeked over the hills, I'd exhausted every avenue I could think of, but unfortunately I was no closer to the truth. Leaving me just one alternative.
Danny was right. It was gutsy bordering on stupid to meet him again. Especially when he'd had police ready to nab me at the restaurant. But I was just desperate enough to ignore the stupid part and bank on gutsy.
I'd told Aiden to meet me in ChaplinPark, a small, neighborhood spot in Burbank, tucked between studios and streets lined with little bungalows left over from Hollywood's golden era. Nine o'clock. Under the gazebo in the center.
Eight forty-six I showed up and sat on a bench hidden behind a grove of trees. I did a slow sweep of the park, ascertaining that the streetlamps and I were alone. I looked up, seeing the one lone star bright enough to shine through the smog layer. I had a crazy urge to make a childish wish on it.
Please, wishing star, keep me from being arrested and wrongfully imprisoned tonight.
I fidgeted on the cool, smooth wood and looked down into my blouse to make sure the mic was well hidden. There was no camera tonight. Not in the dark. Besides, I only needed to record Aiden's words. There would be nothing to video out here.
Caleigh and Sam were parked down the road in Sam's beat-up Dodge Neon. It was less conspicuous than my roadster or Caleigh's Ford Taurus. When they picked me up, Sam didn't look well. She'd ended up taking her son with her to stake out Donna's when the sitter came down with a stomach virus. Two hours in a hot car with a bored ten-year-old sounded less enjoyable than having a wisdom tooth extracted. I did not envy her. But, I was grateful that she'd done it. In Sam's world not getting the job done was up there with running into her ex in the toilet paper aisle of Costco while wearing sweatpants and mismatched sneakers. Just one more reason I didn't want to fire her.
A twig snapped, and I honed in on a figure approaching from the parking lot. I had expected him to be wearing another tailored suit, highly professional and coiffed. Instead he was in a pair of casual jeans and a black T-shirt. The change in attire took me off guard for a moment, and I suddenly wondered if it was intended to do just that.
"The street's clear. He seems to be alone," Caleigh voice came in my earpiece, as he approached the gazebo.
He looked around, scanning the park as I'd done. Clearly he didn't see me, as he shoved his hands into his pockets and sat on a white bench in the gazebo. Though I noticed that he perched on the edge. He was as antsy as I was.
I took a couple of deep breaths. It was now or never.
I slowly got up, stepped carefully out of the shadows, and made my way toward Aiden.
He heard me approaching and looked up, a smile that I could have sworn held genuine pleasure lighting his features under the dim glow of the streetlamps.
"Jamie," he spoke, standing as I entered the gazebo. Ever the gentleman.
He nodded to the bench beside him. "I'm glad you agreed to this."
"I hope I didn't make a mistake." I sat beside him, careful to keep distance between us.
"You didn't." There was that confidence again.
"So, you know who I am."
He nodded. "I'm curious," he said, cocking his head to the side. "What makes someone go from runway model to private investigator? It's a big switch."
I shrugged. "You'd be surprised how often the two jobs call for the same skill set."
"Like catching the eye of the judge at the benefit dinner."
Right to the point.
I inhaled, catching a whiff of his musky aftershave, as I prepared to take a gamble and lay my cards on the table. "His wife, or rather, a woman posing as his wife, hired me to get proof that her husband was a cheater."
"And did you?"
"Yes. Only the woman I gave it to wasn't really Mrs. Waterston. It was Donna Martinez.
"So, that's the link. Donna posed as the wife and hired you to bust the judge?"
"Yes"—I paused—"but someone hired her to hire me."
He raised an eyebrow.
"Look, I know this is starting to sound like a conspiracy theory, but, well…" I paused, biting my lip, not having felt this nervous since my third grade spelling bee. "It is. A conspiracy, I mean. Someone went to a lot of trouble to frame me."
"Why?" Aiden asked, his tone flat and even, not betraying the slightest hint of belief or disbelief.
"I wish I knew."
He digested this for a moment. "Ms. Martinez. She paid you for your services?"
"Cash. Not traceable."
"That's not odd?"
"Not in my business."
"Anything else you can tell me about her?" he asked, clearly fishing for something, though I wasn't sure what.
I shrugged. "Honestly, she looked like every other wife I deal with daily. She was considerably younger than him, but if that's a crime, half of LA would be arrested."
A corner of his mouth lifted. "True."
"Infidelity is a private investigator's specialty. Our bread and butter."
"The police usually handle murder."
"And I'd gladly let them if they weren't accusing me." Irritation filled my tone.
He stared at me, eyes unreadable. I noticed his demeanor was much less affable than it had been at dinner last night. All pretense of flirtation was gone, his witty banter replaced with bare facts. Even so, I felt a current of something running just under his words. His eyes lingered a little too long on my hemline, his body language just a little too relaxed, words drawled a little too slowly. Whether it was unintentional or by design to make me uncomfortable, I wasn't sure. But I felt myself shifting under his gaze, heat filling my cheeks. Open leering I was used to. Occupational hazard. But this slow, assessment, flirting with the border of sensual and clinical, was new.
"So when did you realize Donna Martinez was not what she seemed?" he asked.
I cleared my throat. "When I saw the real wife on the news."
He nodded, pieces seeming to click into place for him. "Along with the video of you."
I nodded back at him in agreement. "We tracked the package the video was delivered in to Donna."
"I thought it was an anonymous delivery?"
"It was, but we found her through the stationery."
The corner of his mouth hitched up. "Clever."
I thought so, but now wasn't the time to gloat. Instead I cleared my throat again. "Okay, I've shown you mine, now show me yours."
The smile hitched higher, definitely falling closer to the sensual side of the border. "Mine?"
"Everything the reporters on TV are saying points to me. But you must have other evidence, or else I'd be in handcuffs right now," I pointed out with a lot more bravado than I felt.
Aiden shook his head. "I'm sorry, there's not much I can tell you. It's an ongoing investigation."
I felt my teeth grind. "But you believe me?" I asked, hating just how desperately I wanted him to say yes.
Like the lawyer he was, he didn't answer.
"I don't like to lose," he said. "I want my ducks in a row before I go in front of a jury."
I gave him a hard stare, wondering just what ducks he was trying to line up tonight.
As if to answer my question, he followed that up with, "When was the last time you saw Donna Martinez alive?"
I shook my head slowly. "You haven't shown me yours, yet," I pointed out.
He might have been annoyed, but instead that slow smile spread across his face again, this time even touching his eyes. "Okay, I can play fair. The medical examiner says Donna Martinez died of an overdose of an amphetamine-type stimulant. It wasn't any of the pills she had a prescription for. There's no sign of forced entry or anything to conclude she hadn't taken them voluntarily."
"Wait—" I said, holding up a hand. "If the pills in her system were not prescription, then they weren't the ones I saw scattered around her body?"
“No. The pills we found with the body were not in her system. They were similar, likely having caused a similar effect. And, had there not been extenuating circumstances—"
"Me finding her and linking her to the judge," I supplied.
He nodded. "—we likely never would have tested them as closely as we did."
"She would have just been written off as a suicide. A woman distraught over the death of her husband."
Aiden nodded again in the soft light. "Something like that."
I paused, taking this all in. "But why not just kill her with the pills she had on hand?"
"Painkillers mostly, given to her by her dentist after extracting a molar, six months ago. They could have killed her in a significant enough dosage, but it would have taken some time. Enough, possibly, for her to realize she was in trouble and call for help. There were no ligature marks on the body, no sign of restraint."
"That would have raised a red flag with the police," I mused.
"Exactly. Whoever administered the stuff needed to do so in a way that she'd willingly take it, then never know what hit her. Which is exactly what the tox screen showed."
"So, what drug did kill her?"
"Designer club drug. Though, her system showed levels far above anything we've seen coming into the ER in partygoers. They call it Shooting Stars, and my sources in vice say it's costly."
"Not something a struggling actress could afford," I pointed out.
Relief should've flooded through me. I was right. There was a mastermind of osrts behind all of this who had killed Donna. And Aiden knew it. But the look on his face wasn't as reassuring as I'd like.
"So this means I'm cleared?"
His laid-back expression twitched. "Donna's death is being ruled murder. But I have no physical evidence linking her to the judge."
"But you said—"
"Physical evidence," he repeated.
He was right. The stationery only proved that Donna could have been the one to send the video to the police station. Not how she got it or why. And the drugs only proved she was killed by someone—not who, not that it wasn't me, not that it had anything to do with the judge.
Aiden leaned forward, closing some of the distance between us. "Look, I want to believe you, Jamie," he said, his voice low and softer now. "I really do."
I swallowed hard, his sudden foray into tenderness surprising me.
"But you can't," I answered.
He slowly shook his head back and forth, the apology in his eyes clear. "I wouldn't be doing my job if I ignored evidence."
"I'm not asking you to ignore," I countered. "Just…keep an open mind."
"I'm here, aren't I?"
I nodded. He was. Though I still wasn't quite sure why.
"Jamie, I'm sorry," he started, leaning just that much closer. His eyes shone under the lamplight, a brilliant blue. His mouth softened, his eyebrows drawing together in genuine concern.
As he opened his mouth to say more, I felt myself softening in response.
But he stopped there.
An unmistakable wee-ooh sound of sirens blared through the night air, shattering the calm.
For one second our eyes locked.
"We’ve got trouble, Jamie," Caleigh said in my ear.
Fury snaked up my back, clenching my muscles, making me tremble. This wasn't happening. Not again.
I jumped up at the same time as Aiden.
He reached toward me.
Did he expect to hold me down, wrestle me to the ground so the police could arrive and cuff me? If so, he had another think coming.
I curled my fist and swung.