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Unbreakable Bond - Chapter 8



CHAPTER EIGHT


I froze. It was all I could do to keep the smile pasted on my face as my body launched into fight or flight mode. Mostly flight.

"I need to use the restroom," I said, forcing myself to rise slowly from the table, despite instant panic urging me on. "Excuse me."

"I'll meet you around the side of the building," Danny said, his voice mirroring my panic.

My hip knocked into the table, jostling the dinnerware. A butter knife slid off, and I caught it midway to the floor. I tossed it beside the bread plate and half-walked, half-sprinted to the foyer.

Once around the corner, I dropped the walking bit and just sprinted to the restrooms.

I would've preferred using the delivery doors, but accessing the kitchen from the dining room would've made Aiden suspicious. So I settled for Plan B. The ladies' room window. Danny and I had cased all outside exits before he dropped me off. This one was our best bet.

I tugged on the restroom door handle. It didn't budge.

Occupied. Great.

I glanced to a second door on my left. The men's room. I hadn't actually checked it out, but it stood to reason there was a window in there, too. But as I reached for the handle, the maître 'd appeared in the hallway, wearing a scowl.

"May I help you?"

"No, thank you."

He stood firm, his grimace unwavering.

"I need to use the restroom," I whispered. I didn't need to fake the urgency in my voice.

"That is the men's room, madame."

A scream, somewhere deep in my core, spiraled toward my throat. I was running out of time. It was all I could do to not push the guy aside.

"I'm aware, but I really need to go."

I glanced toward the front doors, expecting to see two uniformed officers with their guns aimed at my pretty little head. It was clear but wouldn't be for long.

I grabbed the handle and pushed the men’s room door, but the door didn't budge.

Also occupied. I thought a string of bad words, feeling them bubble up on the back of my throat.

Just then a stout woman in a royal blue chiffon dress stepped out of the ladies' room.

A huge sigh escaped my mouth, and I almost threw my arms around her in a fierce hug. Instead I tossed a smirk over my shoulder to the maître d' and hurried inside.

I choked on a cloud of cheap perfume and breathed through my mouth. Not bothering to latch the door, I ran to the window. The frosted glass pane lifted with ease, and I used the trash can to hoist myself up.

Danny's van idled in the alley. He leaned out the driver's side window. "Hurry."

As if I was moving slowly on purpose.

Legs over the ledge, I shimmied my torso forward. My dress caught on the sill, but I didn't care, didn't want to take the time to gingerly untangle the fabric, didn't want to add silver handcuffs to my accessories. I jumped and only hoped the ripping sound wouldn't leave too much exposed.

As my feet touched the asphalt, one of my heels buckled beneath me, and I fell onto hands and knees. Scraped and bloodied, I hopped up with the grace of a drunken alley cat.

I waddled around the front of the van, temporarily blinded by the headlights, and scrambled into the passenger seat.

"That was close." Danny spun the vehicle away from the restaurant, turning left at the end of the alley.

To my right, I could see red and blue lights flashing against the front signage of the restaurant. I felt that panic slowly melting into relief as I pictured the look on Aiden's face, when he realized I'd escaped.


* * *


I paced the length of my desk the next morning, back and forth, grinding my heels into the carpet and my molars into enamel dust. Staying there, cooped up, while the girls were out talking to our source at Channel 4, made me want to shred off the vanilla striped wallpaper with my fingernails.

Since I was too much of a control freak to relax and wait, Danny had hooked the girls up. Microphones, cameras, the usual, but this time he managed to stream the feed from Caleigh's chest to my laptop. Any minute now I'd be able to watch.

From the sidelines.

This was the first time I hadn't taken lead on a case so important.

Maya knocked on my door and entered. "Here. I thought you could use this." She handed me my usual—a grande nonfat Caramel Macchiato.

She eyed the indentations my heels had made in the carpet. "Maybe you don't need the caffeine."

"Thanks," I muttered and took a long, scalding sip.

Then to Danny, on speakerphone, I asked, "How's it going there?"

As if on cue, the black screen on my laptop grew static then flickered in and out.

"You got a picture?" Danny asked.

I made out double glass doors with the Channel 4 logo. Maya and I moved closer.

"It's kinda fuzzy."

"Hey, it's the best I can do on short notice, kid," Danny replied.

I watched Sam and Caleigh walk into the lobby. I cranked up the volume on my speakers and sat in my chair. Maya pulled an imitation leather one over, and we huddled by the screen.

Our view sashayed across the burgundy carpet. Except for a woman watering a nearby plant, the room appeared empty.

"Hey. I'm looking for Elaine," Caleigh said in her sweet as molasses drawl.

The woman turned, displaying a set of double Ds that would put Dolly Parton to shame. While she looked to be at least a decade my senior, she was sporting a top row of barely detectable Invisalign braces. She had light brown hair, feathered at the sides, channeling the original Charlie's Angels, and large green eyes. She wore a tank top that barely contained her non-bouncing boobs—clearly the work of a talented plastic surgeon.

"I'm her. Who are you?" Her smile appeared innocent, but her smoked-a-pack-a-day voice shattered that image.

"Whoa. Way to ruin a hottie." Danny's shock traveled across the phone line.

The girls must've felt the same way because it took Caleigh a moment to respond. "Hi, we're friends of Derek. He said you could help us."

Elaine set down the watering can and took a seat behind the long, counter-height front desk. It practically swallowed her whole.

"So what can I do Derek for?" she cackled.

I envisioned him and this woman on his bed, in positions a daughter should never imagine. I shuddered.

Sam leaned down and rested her arms on the top edge of the desk. Her dark curls bounced into view. "The station received a package. A video of Judge Waterston on the night he was killed. We're hoping you can tell us about it. Like who sent it."

Elaine pursed her lips. "I heard about that But I wasn't here when it arrived. I didn't see who delivered it."

"Maybe someone else did?" Caleigh prodded.

"Or you can show us the envelope it arrived in," Sam suggested.

Elaine leaned back. "Why would I do that?"

"Derek said you were ever so helpful." Caleigh added extra syrup to her words.

Static buzzed in and out, and the picture skipped a beat. I prayed the feed would stay up. I trusted the girls. They were the best at what they did, but since this morning, I'd been a mass of anxiety. A rough night of tossing, turning, and thinking had me frazzled.

"Aww, Derek's just the sweetest man I've ever known," Double D purred.

Sweet? Did she have the right Derek Bond?

She leaned closer. "And the dirtiest old kink."

Ah, yes. That sounded about right.

"He once tied me up and slathered—“

I grabbed my ears, pressing my palms against my head with enough force to pop the top off a stubborn pickle jar, and held on for dear sanity. "La-la-la-la-la."

Maya smirked and kept her gaze on the screen. A moment later, she gave me the thumbs up, and I cautiously lowered my hands.

"Wait here," Elaine said then sprung out of her chair and hurried down a narrow corridor to a back office.

Static interfered, and when it cleared up, Elaine flounced back into view. She carried a pink and yellow striped envelope.

The video had arrived in that?

"I really shouldn't show you this, but I'd do anything for Derek." Another cackle set the hairs on my arms erect. "I pulled it from the trash for you."

Caleigh took the envelope and held it at an angle for the camera. Other than the local postmark and the station’s typewritten address, the front was devoid of any marks. No return address. Nothing handwritten.

Damn. I punched the top of my desk. A cup of pens rattled. Maya flinched.

"It was a long shot," Danny said.

I rolled my eyes, wanting to hang up on him. I knew if had been a long shot, but that didn't mean I couldn't set my expectations high.

"Fancy, right?” Elaine chuckled. "It’s not everyday we get anonymous tips in designer envelopes."

Designer. That was it.

"Danny, tell Caleigh to flip it over and look for a brand."

Maya scooted closer to my laptop. "What are you thinking?"

"If she had them custom-made or even if they’re a niche brand, maybe we can trace where they were bought."

Caleigh flipped the package and held the bottom left corner closer to her bosom.

Advent Paper.

The phone in reception rang. Maya scrambled up front, and I sat back in my chair, hopeful the lead might still pay off. I watched Caleigh and Sam thank Elaine, who asked them to tell Derek she'd be calling soon for another wild ride. Gag. Then the screen went to permanent static, and Danny signed off.

"We're on our way."

Before I got a second to instruct Maya to search the name of the company, my office door opened again. This time Levine stuck his head in.

He pointed behind him. "Maya was busy, so I let myself in."

Just what my day needed. A lecture on either a) criminal defense or b) firing an employee.

He lowered himself into the chair Maya had occupied, folding one leg over the other. "So I heard about your narrow escape last night."

"From whom?" The girls knew better than that. If one of them had talked to Levine, I might reconsider the firing thing.

"Danny mentioned it," he said.

Traitor.

"So, was it worth it?" Levine asked me, a hint of sarcasm in his voice.

"Yes, absolutely," I answered with confidence that I didn't quite yet feel. "We're following up a lead right now."

He narrowed his beady eyes and twitched his nose. I almost offered him the chunk of Muenster in the back of the office fridge. Instead, I filled him in on the package.

When I'd finished, he finally said, "I'll set up an appointment with Mr. Prince, and we'll tell your side of the story."

Were brain cells leaking through his bald spot?

"So then he can have police and handcuffs waiting? I don't think so."

"Jamie, we can settle this with one meeting."

"How? Do you possess a magic wand I don't know about? My face is on that video."

"They only want you in for questioning. There's no proof to tie you to the murder, no DNA or fingerprints." He paused. "Right?"

Did he doubt me?

"Of course not, but I'm not taking that chance. We'll track down this package and find Faux Mrs. Waterston. Then we'll take her on a visit to the ADA."

He shook his head. "As your attorney, I don't agree. But, you're the client. I can't force you to do anything you don't want to."

Clearly. Especially If he wanted paid.

"So, you want to ignore the colossal legal mistakes you're making?” he continued. “Fine. Let's talk business instead. Which girl are you letting go?"

"Ha." I rose and walked to the door, signaling the end of the conversation. "I still have over a week to get us into the black."

"You're kidding me, right?" He stood and walked to me. "You're a suspect in a murder, Jamie."

"I'm aware."

"If your true identity leaks, this agency may as well hang up its shingle."

I straightened his tie. "They're letters painted on glass. Not a shingle."

The left corner of his mouth lifted. "You're just like your father."

I gently swatted his arm. "Of all the insults."

"Same determination. Same stubborn streak." With that bit of indigestion, he turned and walked out. "We'll talk tomorrow."

Not if I solved this today.

I watched Levine leave, nearly colliding with Caleigh as she walked in. Danny followed a step behind.

"Where's Sam?" I asked.

"On the way back she got a call from her sitter. Something about a stomachache, so she went home."

Watching Samantha load and shoot a gun like Rambo sometimes made me forget her other job was title "Mom."

"Hope her kid's okay," I said.

Maya struck the keys on her keyboard with her French-manicured acrylic tips. "So I found Advent Paper's website. As it turns out, they're e-commerce only, specializing in envelopes, stationery, parchment. Who knew there was a demand for actual paper still?"

Caleigh walked around the reception desk and stared at the screen. She tapped Maya's shoulder with the back of her hand. "Let me at it."

Maya stood and gave up her seat.

"It’s possible I can get into their ordering system and find their customer list."

While she attacked the keys, Danny grabbed my elbow and pulled me out of their earshot. "I saw Levine drive off as we pulled in."

"Yeah. Thanks for ratting me out, by the way."

At least Danny had the decency to look sheepish. "He called me last night after I got home. He said he wanted to help you."

"Yeah, well, he's delusional. He thinks talking to the ADA will be enough to clear me."

Danny paused, chewing on that thought. "I can't say I totally agree with that strategy. That Prince guy was shifty last night. I don't trust him."

"That makes two of us," I mumbled.

"But, Levine is a good lawyer. If he says you should turn yourself in…"

I stared at him as he trailed off. "Really? Et tu, Danny?"

"Got it," Caleigh cried, saving him from answering.

Wow, that girl was fast. We hurried to the desk. She clicked the mouse, and the printer hummed to life.

"There are five customers who purchased this particular design of stationary in the past year."

"Not a big seller," I mumbled.

Caleigh walked to the end of the desk and lifted the page from the printer's tray. "Crystal McKinley," she said, reading the first name from the list. “From Burbank.”

Maya slid back into her chair.

I circled the desk as she typed the name and city into a search engine. Several links to a Crystal McKinley's social media sites appeared at the top of the page. Maya clicked one, and we were taken to a page of a teenaged girl sporting a duck face and inch-thick black eyeliner under her eyes.

"They really should offer cosmetology classes in high school," Caleigh said.

"That's definitely not our Mrs. Waterston," I said.

"Okay, how about Edgar Washington of West Hollywood."

“Doubtful,” I said. “She may have been faking her identity, but I’m pretty sure she was a woman.”

"Well, I guess we can also cross off Timothy Weiner of Los Angeles. That's leaves Donna Martinez North Hollywood and Gail Baxter in Encino."

Maya clicked a few more keys, typing in the names. A moment later a picture of Faux Mrs. Waterston filled the monitor. Instead of the Audrey Hepburn look though, she wore her long, dark hair down. It flowed over her shoulders, and she appeared softer, more angelic than the woman I'd met.

A flood of anger hit me.

She definitely had a talent for disguise. If she weren't a murderer or trying to frame me, she'd make a great Bond girl.

"That's her."

Donna Martinez.

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