The giant white pillars of the Waterston estate came into view, and I checked all emotion. This was do or die time. The video had to be within the walls of the Margaret Mitchell-esque home. I didn't even want to think about the alternative.
I parked far down the road, shrugged off the coat, and popped Maya's trunk, hoping to find anything less conspicuous than clubbing attire I was currently rocking.
A tire iron, spare, and small duffel were the only items. I zipped open the bag and discovered a bikini, pair of white socks, a tube of gel toothpaste, a comb, and a yellow blazer. Geeze, what did Maya do in her free time?
I grabbed the blazer and tried to smooth out the wrinkles. I tossed the trench in the trunk, locked everything up and slipped into the jacket. Made from thin linen, at least I wouldn't melt before I got to the property.
I walked as nonchalantly as I could down the tree-lined street, forcing my nerves away. I held onto Derek's jailhouse assurances that we Bonds were tough. Unbreakable. I would find the judge's real killer, and I would not be going back to jail. I held onto that thought with a two-fisted death grip as I forced one foot in front of the other.
As I approached the house, a white Mustang pulled up to the gates and drove into the estate.
I assumed this meant Mrs. Waterston was home. Chances were, with a house that size, domestic staff would be around, too. A house full of people was going to make things a bit more difficult.
Another car pulled onto the property. And then another. I caught a glimpse of the drivers. All women, mostly young. No passengers. I wondered what Mrs. Waterston was up to.
It was a tad too soon for a garden party, no?
When I reached the gate, a petite brunette walked up from the opposite end of the road. Dressed in a beige pencil skirt and a white blouse, she gave a friendly smile and fell into step with me.
"Are you here for the interview?" she asked. Her voice was high and nervous, resembling Minnie Mouse.
We passed the open gate and stayed along the shoulder of the driveway, allowing plenty of room for the cars.
"Yes. Are you nervous?" I asked, trying to strike up a camaraderie that might result in loose lips.
Her eyes widened, and she let out a huff, as if feeling relief at telling her biggest secret. "Ohmigod, you too?"
In all honesty, I was now more anxious about finding access to the judge's private quarters than anything else. A group of high-strung women vying for the same job was a runway walk. I'd done it all my life. These women, however, could be the perfect ruse or my biggest demise. I'd lay fifty-fifty odds on my luck this afternoon.
She stared at my hands. "Did you forget your résumé?"
Right, a résumé. I wasn't even carrying a purse. "I emailed it in," I lied.
She nodded. "Smart. I kept tweaking mine all night. I've actually never worked as a personal assistant before."
Ah. So that was the job.
"But, I do have a lot of experience with the elderly," she went on. "I mean, not that Mrs. Waterston is all that old, but I understand how one needs help with things when one loses a spouse. It must be totally tragic, you know?"
"Totally," I agreed.
"Plus, I really need this job. My landlord won't give me an extension on the rent and…" She trailed off, apparently realizing she was spilling her life story to the competition.
A high-pitched giggle came from Minnie's lips. "Sorry. I tend to ramble when I'm nervous," she said as we reached the front of the house.
"It's okay," I reassured her. "My landlord's a jerk, too."
The front door was open, apparently expecting us, and we stepped into the marble foyer. To our right stood double doors that were shut, and to our left was a large sitting room where other girls gathered. A grand curved staircase set off by a crystal chandelier sat in the center.
I followed Minnie into the sitting room, which was decorated in light, muted tones. Cream sofas, pale blue rugs, several vases of flowers scattered through the room. I took up a spot in the corner, hoping to blend in with a potted plant. If I'd wanted this job, I would've sat dead center, like the blonde seated on the ottoman, giving her best impression of a statue. Today, however, I couldn't risk Mrs. Waterston stepping in and recognizing me.
Rubber-soled shoes squeaked on the polished floor. A stocky woman in an actual black and white maid's uniform appeared at the door. "Mrs. Waterston will see you now," she said, addressing the blonde.
The girl took a deep breath, then followed her.
When they walked out, I stepped forward to see where they went. The maid opened the double doors across the foyer and ushered the girl inside. With just a quick glance, it appeared to be a study, the corner of a dark, mahogany desk and shelves filled with leather bound books visible before the door shut.
It didn't strike me as having the same feminine decorating hand as the room I was currently in. If I had to guess, it was the domain of the late judge.
Which meant that was were I needed to go.
Okay, Jamie, think. Clearly I needed the place to myself. And clearly that wasn't going to happen until Mrs. Waterston was done interviewing her dozen hopeful assistants-to-be. I didn't think yelling "fire" was going to clear the place effectively. And if I couldn't get everyone out, I'd have to wait for them to leave on their own.
I turned to Minnie. "Do you know where the restroom is?"
She shook her head.
Of course not.
"It's just down the hall," said a redhead in a pantsuit. "The second door. You don't want the first. I almost tumbled down the basement stairs. They really should label those doors."
"Thanks." I winked at Minnie, said a silent prayer for her to get the job, and walked into the hall.
I stepped lightly, making sure my heels didn't click too loudly. Wherever the maid had disappeared to, I didn't want to draw her attention.
The restroom door was ajar. I made out the edge of a sink and a glare from a mirror. But I had no intention of hiding out in a half-bath. Chances of getting caught were excellent.
Instead, I grabbed the knob of the first door and twisted. The idea of spending several hours in a dark basement wasn't on the top of my list, but sometimes this job called for filth and grit.
* * *
Thankfully I'd skipped the jail's not-so-scrumptious breakfast of bread, oatmeal, and what passed for coffee that morning. If not, I'd probably have been doing the potty dance hours ago. Then again, if I hadn't my stomach wouldn't have been growling so loudly. I'd swear the last remaining interviewees above must have thought there was a monster underground.
A floorboard squeaked. It was definitely above me, but just in case, I took my feet off the cement floor and sat one step higher. I had no idea how long I'd been waiting. I think I dozed off a couple of times. The sounds upstairs had diminished, but I didn't want to investigate until I heard no movements, even if it meant sneaking around after Mrs. Waterston went to bed.
Being raised in California, basements weren't my thing. They were rare in the sunshine state, usually small, always dusty, dark, and holding untold creepy-crawlies in their corners.
Despite the heat outside and the warm moisture down there, I hugged myself against an internal chill. I couldn't make out much in the darkness, but my sight had adjusted enough to see shapes. It appeared empty. Cold. Dank.
Footsteps grew closer. These weren't the maid's soft soles. They were harder, like heels, and slower than any of the girls I'd heard traipsing across the hall earlier.
"Take the rest of the day off, Clarice," I heard above me. I instantly recognized Mrs. Waterston’s smoke-seduced voice.
"Are you sure? I'm happy to stay later if there's anything you wish, madame." The softer voice was definitely the maid.
They must have been just above me, because the voices were clear as day.
"That's not necessary. I'm having dinner at my sister's. When I return, I'll be heading straight to bed. Unfortunately, my headache has not faded."
"Very well then. Good night."
I listened to two pair of footsteps move in opposite directions. This was it. Finally my chance. I stood up and shook out the pins and needles in my limbs. My butt was numb too, but that would have to wear off on its own.
I waited until I heard the front door shut twice, then climbed the stairs and eased open the door. The hall was darker than before, but the steady glow of an orange sunset filtered in from the glass panels that flanked the front door.
I hurried down the hall to the study, hoping Veronica Waterston had left her husband's things exactly as they were. In a twenty-plus year marriage, I prayed she wouldn't want to donate to charity for some time.
Just as I expected, the room was filled with mahogany furnishings that looked slick with a high shine. Someone needed to give Clarice a raise. She'd win the Gold in polishing.
It smelled of expensive perfume, cigarette smoke, and old money.
A quick glance out the window showed no cars parked out front or near the three-car garage, bathed now in hues of orange, gold, and pink. Apparently, I'd been in the basement for most of the day. I suddenly wondered how Caleigh and the others were. Had they been carted to the precinct for questioning? Was Aiden out hunting me down with his bloodhounds? If not now, I knew it was only a matter of time.
I blocked out that cheery thought and focused on the task at hand. I started with the desk, searching through drawers. Each one opened easily, no locks. Paper, envelopes, pens, old Christmas cards, a book of holiday stamps—everything neat and organized. No bills, credit card statements, or other personal items.
The computer's desktop held household folders: gardener, housekeeping, catering, etc. Each one was password protected. A recent browser history brought up several employment agencies, divulging where the girls had come from. And everything prior to Sunday pertained to various charities, some home decorating sites, and gardening sites. Suddenly this felt more like a shared study than Mr. Waterston's private lair.
So where did the late judge keep his secrets?
I pushed back the oversized leather chair and eyed a file cabinet in the corner.
I tried the drawers, but each was locked. No surprise.
Frustrated, but not defeated, I headed to the back of the house. I passed a large dining room, another sitting room, and finally entered a gleaming white kitchen. I quickly glanced around, looking for any object sharp enough to pop a lock. A butcher block on a far counter held my answer, and I grabbed a paring knife. I eyed a tempting banana in the fruit basket, but chose to let my hunger wait and headed back into the hall. When this was over I was treating myself to a celebratory dinner of lobster and all the martinis I could handle. To heck with the Bond Agency's finances.
But as I stepped over the threshold from the kitchen, my eye caught a glint of light behind a second staircase. I paused, moving behind the massive structure, and noticed a door. Sunlight streamed from beneath it, forming an orange welcome mat against the floor.
I slowly turned the knob and peeked in.
What must've once been the help's quarters decades ago was now a fully outfitted man cave. On the far side a couple of brown leather recliners faced a large flat screen television, surround sound system, and gaming equipment. I smiled at the image of the old man rocking back and forth in one of those chairs while playing Halo.
A desk with laptop and chair stood directly across from the door. A picturesque window flanked the left wall, displaying a fantastic view of the flower garden and a glistening in-ground pool.
Now this looked like the judge's lair.
I slipped the paring knife into a jacket pocket and opened the bottom cabinet of the entertainment shelving, searching through twenty or so DVDs holding home movies. Each was labeled with name, date, and major players of event. Unfortunately, none were marked Alexa and Perv Sex Video.
I turned on the computer and poked around at a few files, but none of them led to homemade movies. I combed through the desk. Not only was Waterston an X-box fan, but it seemed he loved to doodle. Pages and pages of female bodies sporting various exaggerated body parts filled the desk. If some weren't so vulgar, they'd actually be artistic.
The sun had set. The sky, a pale grey, would soon turn dark. I had no idea how long Veronica's dinner would be, but I was burning time fast.
I pulled open the desk drawers again, this time pushing the contents to the side to feel for any false bottoms or hidden compartments. I came up empty on the bottom two. But as my hand slid along the top of the last drawer, something small and hard brushed against my palm. I dropped to my knees, craning my neck to get a look at it. A small black flash drive was taped to the top of the drawer.
I ripped it form the wooden surface, thumbed off the plastic top, and plugged it into the laptop. There was only one file, titled: at0429. I clicked it, and everything froze for a moment.
I wasn't sure what I expected. It seemed that every time I thought I was getting closer to the truth, I ended up slammed into a dead end face first. I was tired of getting my hopes up without concrete results. But my hands still shook with anticipation as I watched the media player’s logo flash across the screen.
A moment later, heavy breathing filled the room. The camera angle was high, like it had been perched on a shelf or the top of an armoire, but with the dozen candles set on the nightstands and dresser, it was easy to make out the couple's profiles.
And their positions.
A curvalicious blonde straddled an older guy. His face was hidden between her perky bosoms. He squeezed her butt then lifted his beet red face and lay back against the pillows.
Yep, definitely Judge Waterston.
She grabbed the top of the brass headboard and bounced. Without jiggle.
They dirty-talked for a few minutes then flipped positions. With her stilettos pointed to the ceiling, she squealed, and I did my best to hold down yesterday's jailhouse delicacies.
Assuming this was Alexa, this had to be the sex video that sent Judge Waterston into a rage. I watched, trying my best at detachment as the two seemed completely absorbed in each other. So absorbed, I realized, that their faces barely made it on screen. There had just been that one fleeting glimpse of the judge. Which was odd. I mean, if Alexa had set up the filming, wouldn't she be trying to position him so that his blackmail-worthy face was front and center? But she seemed almost unaware of where the camera was. I hated to admit it, but maybe Alexa had told my girls the truth. Maybe she really didn't know anything about the video.
So who did?
I tried to make out the decor around the two gyrating bodies. There was the brass bed, a plain wall behind, hard to tell the color in the dim lighting. The pillowcases were striped, and a floral comforter bunched itself at the end of the bed.
I sucked in a breath.
The floral. The brass. I knew this room.
This was the guest room I’d seen in Dakota Hall’s penthouse.
A million questions swirled through my head all at once, jumbled thoughts vying for space as pieces slowly dropped into place.
The answer was on the tip of my brain when a faint reflection in the monitor caught my attention.
I spun around.
A moment too late.
Light exploded behind my eyes as a resounding whack filled my skull.