The word, along with a colorful array of obscenities, looped through my mind. Who was the fake Mrs. Waterston? Who'd pretend to be the wife of a Superior Court judge? Who'd hire a private investigator to prove infidelity as a ruse?
A murderer looking for a scapegoat, that's who.
Who had been naive enough to take the word of a stranger at face value?
The answer sunk to the pit of my stomach and dueled with the pastrami.
When I looked up, the bartender averted his eyes. I whipped my head around, wondering how many other Dungeon patrons recognized the woman in the footage and the woman sitting at the bar.
I glanced again at the bartender. He was intent on the register now, eyes down, forehead wrinkled in concern. Were his fingers itching to dial 9-1-1 and leave a tip? Eventually someone would point me out to the cops. And then what?
Danny touched my hand, jolting me from my thoughts. "This will get straightened out." But the pinched look on his face screamed panic more than reassurance.
I nodded. "She killed the judge and set me up to cover her tracks," I said, working through my jumbled thoughts out loud. "But why? And if she's not really the wife, who is she? What does she have to do with the judge?"
"I know a guy. A lawyer. He defended that athlete accused of murdering his wife. You know the one." He rapped his knuckles on the bar, as if the motion would dislodge the name from his brain.
"And beyond why him and why her…why me?" I asked no one in particular. "Why frame me?"
"A good lawyer will sort through it all."
"I have a lawyer."
Danny sighed and shook his head at me. "Not Levine. You need a criminal attorney."
I shivered, practically break dancing on the bar stool at the phrase. I'd been known to bend the law on occasion, but I was no criminal. Besides, who could afford a high profile lawyer? There was no reason I couldn't figure this out before it got to that. "The footage is the key to finding out who did this," I decided, staring at the TV screen again as if it might replay.
Danny blew out a long breath. "Are you listening? Bond, this is serious."
I was listening. I'd heard every syllable he uttered, every nuance in his tone, every stab at my competence. He didn't think I could handle this.
I pushed my plate away, clanking it into my beer bottle. I couldn't continue eating. "Lawyers hire PIs, Danny. Not the other way around."
"So you're gonna hire yourself?" He raised his smartass eyebrows.
"No, I'm going on my date with the ADA." I tossed several bills on the bar and grabbed my bag.
Danny held up a hand, palm out. "Whoa. What are you talking about?"
I told him about my call with Aiden. When I was done, he looked at me like I needed committed.
"Are you crazy? You'll be wearing handcuffs before appetizers."
I rolled my eyes, knowing full well it made me look like a petulant teenager. I only dusted off the expression for him and Derek.
"I know what I'm doing. I'm not a rookie when it comes to men," I said, driving home the point that I didn't need an extra father. The one I had was more than enough.
Another patron walked in as I stood, and he gave me the body check. My skin prickled. Maybe he was just checking out my hot pumps and short skirt…or maybe he'd seen Soledad's report and was even now counting the reward money in his head. Either way, the mingling aromas of old grease, stale beer, and musty men funked my personal space. I couldn't stay there any longer.
"I need to get out of here," I said, leading the way to the parking lot.
"So the sex kitten voice was for the Ken doll," Danny said, following me.
Sunlight blinded me, and I reached into my bag for my Gucci sunglasses, using the motion to ignore Danny's statement.
"Obviously he knows you're the prime suspect in his case."
"You think, Sherlock?"
"Well, clearly you can't lead with your libido."
I scoffed. "Is that what you think I'm doing? Danny, I'm not you. I want to find out what he knows. Find the fake Mrs. Waterston and nail her butt before someone nails mine, got it? I have no interest in romance, trust me."
Danny sighed and used his fingers as a wide-toothed comb, making his hair stand on end. "I don't like it."
"You don't have to. I have my big girl panties on. I can take care of myself."
I expected him to make a crude comment about my undergarments. Instead he said, "Fine, but I'm going with you."
I chuckled, hoping it sounded playful, even though it was laced with annoyance. "I said I could handle it."
But he ignored me. "I'll wire you and wait outside. But you're not going alone. Aside from wanting you behind bars, he's a creep. Probably sleeps with every woman he meets."
Well if that wasn't the horndog calling the flirt a himbo.
But, considering I wasn't 100% sure he wasn't right, I relented. "Fine. Wire me."
And since Danny hadn't drilled the ADA's reputation into the concrete far enough, he added, "You can't trust this guy."
No kidding. But it was the best lead I had at the moment. By the time I was done, Prince would know a new definition of the word charming.
* * *
I still had hours before I needed to get ready to meet Prince, and the last thing I wanted to do was pace my apartment, possibly collide into Levine at the office again, or run the risk of being seen at the target range.
With all of my regular hangouts off limits, I chose the only other place that felt safe.
The grass crunched beneath my pumps. Too many days without rain and temps over 90 had left it yellow and pea green in spots. Even without my jacket, I wanted to melt into the ground. I'd left it in the car, along with my gun, because she didn't approve of weapons.
At least that's what Derek had told me years ago.
She used to frown and complain when he'd come home wearing his. Mom lived an honest life, filled with peace and kind words. When she disciplined me, she never raised her voice, even while grounding me for what felt like life. She and Derek couldn't have been more different.
I turned off the narrow dirt path and walked up two rows to the back corner of the cemetery. Beside her headstone sat a bouquet of wildflowers. Her favorites. Their vibrant purple, yellow, and pink petals were still smooth and fresh. Someone had delivered them recently.
I smiled at the idea of an old friend paying his or her respects, of someone visiting so she wasn't lonely. Perhaps that was a silly notion, but I needed to believe she was still listening when I shared my life, still laughing at my goofs, still frowning at my mistakes.
I placed my smaller bouquet beside the first set and sat down. Leaning a hand on her headstone, I shut my eyes and pressed out the world, traveling back to a time before Bond Agency, before DeLine Models, and before she'd left us.
"Do you remember that Christmas we spent in New York because we wanted to see the city and experience snow? I was so young. We went ice skating at Rockefeller Center, and you kept falling."
She'd worn a yellow scarf, and every time she went down, the frayed ends blew up and landed on top of her head. It reminded me of Big Bird and made me giggle.
"At the hotel that night, you lay in bed, your legs smothered in towels of ice. Then the next day, despite the aches and bruises, we went back and you managed to not fall…as much."
I chuckled at the memory. "You taught me how to keep going, Mom. Thank you."
Years later, I wondered if she'd fallen on purpose, just to hear me laugh. She was like that.
After a few moments of silence, I opened my eyes and filled her in on the latest. I hesitated at the part where my face was plastered on the local news, but she'd want to know every detail, so I reluctantly told.
The greatest thing about Mom was she had always let me make my own decisions. Make my own mistakes and clean up my own messes. Even if she had cleverly influenced me. When I wanted to pierce my septum in fifth grade, because a hot drummer in a punk band did the same, she said, "You'd look great with a loop. Just take care of it and you won't develop any infections. They're easy to heal with medication though. It'll only be swollen and filled with puss for a few days."
Needless to say, my nose remained unpierced to this day.
"Danny's wrong," I told her. "A lawyer's not going to help me. I mean, I can't just turn myself in. That's crazy. Right?"
A breeze stirred the ends of my hair. The aroma of jasmine floated with it.
Mom's signature scent.
The left side of my brain reasoned it belonged to nearby flowers, but the daughter in me felt her presence.
"I knew you'd agree."
My purse began to ring out an unfamiliar tone. I dug inside and came out with my unregistered phone, checking the readout.
My pulse raced with the feeling that life had suddenly intruded on my sanctuary.
I glanced to Mom as if looking for her input, then answered. "Hello?"
"Jamie? It's Aiden."
"Hi," I said slowly. "I wasn't sure if you'd call back."
"Why's that?" His voice was steady and businesslike. Some small part of me was almost impressed with his game of chicken. It was the same tone he'd used only hours ago when he'd thought I was just a hot blonde and not a murder suspect. There was no hint of deceit in it whatsoever. He was good; I'd give him that.
A fact that made the pit of anxiety grow to epic proportions in my stomach.
"Just figured you may be too busy," I answered, trying to match his casual sound.
"I'd never cancel on a beautiful woman. So is nine still okay?"
"Great." The word came out rushed and way too eager.
"Good. How about we meet at Franco's? Are you familiar?"
A rustic Italian restaurant off Melrose. I'd never been inside, but I heard the roasted vegetable lasagna was to die for.
"Yes, I can't wait."
"Me too. See you tonight."
The line went dead. I sat there staring at the phone, wondering if he'd actually show up or have a police cruiser waiting to escort me to the local precinct.
But my gut said to take the chance. If there was any possibility of getting answers, it was through the ADA.