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Friday, Dec. 23, 5:45 p.m.
Merrilee Walters shut down her computer and sighed. Her first report as an assistant field investigator was complete. She smiled. She was a full-fledged Colby Agency investigator now.
Merri slid back her chair and stood. She'd proven to Ian Michaels, the second-in-command here at the Colby Agency, that she could pull her weight despite her disability. Ian was still dubious, hence the continued insistence that for a time Merri would be teamed with another investigator on a case. Getting past that final test would be a breeze.
Pulling on her coat, she considered the seven years that had passed since she'd lost her ability to hear. Life had been tough at first. Being a grown woman and an elementary schoolteacher at the time, she'd had to work particularly hard to regain her bearings. She'd taken a year off from work to adjust to this new soundless world of hers and during that time she'd realized that returning to the world of teaching wasn't possible.
Not for her, anyway.
She'd also realized during that time that she had not lived up to her expectations—expectations she hadn't even realized she'd had at the time.
Merri grabbed her purse and shook her head as she recalled those confusing months. She'd lacked the confidence necessary to have a classroom full of elementary students depending upon her when she couldn't hear a single word or sound. Anything could have happened when she had her back turned, to write on the blackboard for instance. But there had been more missing.
Her family had been worried. Her country singer fiancé had broken off their engagement.
Life had pretty much sucked.
Until she'd realized, sort of by trial and error, her true calling. Another smile tugged at her lips. She'd come a long way since then.
Merri turned off the light and stepped out of her office. A stint with Nashville's Metro Police Department had provided the challenge she'd needed and the opportunity to prove she was still a viable member of society. Not to mention she'd had a hell of an adventure.
Four years as a detective back in Nashville had been good, but she'd needed a change. She'd needed to do something more, something much more personal. Victoria Colby-Camp had been willing to take her on and Merri had made a move north, leaving behind the two men who'd turned her world upside down—Detective Steven Barlow and former Mob wiseguy Mason Conrad.
Talk about covering both ends of the spectrum.
Merri had needed a change, professionally and personally. No offense to her colleagues, and certainly not to her family.
She paused in the lobby to peer out the window at the falling snow. She liked Chicago. It was a lot colder than in Nashville and her folks were seriously missing her, but the change had been a good one. One she'd needed on every level.
The rest of the agency staff had gone home for the day. There were last-minute Christmas shopping and holiday parties. But Merri had already done her shopping. Presents to her family had gone into the mail last week. She didn't know enough folks to be invited to any parties, except for the Colby Agency New Year's party. But that was okay. Merri was still getting her Yankee legs under her. And she felt comfortable with being all by herself on Christmas.
If she had gone home, her family would have spent the entire holiday explaining how she needed to come back home to them. One or more of her former colleagues would have dropped by to say how sorely she was missed.
Maybe next year. Right now, she needed distance…distance and time.
She pressed the call button for the elevator and considered what she should have for dinner on the way home. It was actually cheaper for one to eat out and the restaurant crowd prevented her from eating alone, which was something she, as much as she hated to admit it, missed about being back home. Her close-knit family liked nothing better than to get together over a big meal—no special occasion needed.
The elevator light for her floor blinked and the doors prepared to glide open.
"Finally." One would think that with most everyone in the building gone for the day that the elevators would be ready instantly. Never happened. The elegant cars had one speed—slow.
The doors slid apart and Merri prepared to move forward.
A blur of movement had her stumbling back several steps.
"You have to… me."
Merri blinked, stared at the man's face. He'd said something but, distracted by his unexpected burst from the car, she'd missed part of it.
"Excuse me?" She kept her attention fully on the man's face this time.
"I need help."
His frantic expression and the fear in his eyes told her he was in trouble. "What's wrong?" She should have just told him they were closed, but she couldn't bring herself to ignore a person in need and this gentleman was definitely in serious need.
The question of how he got past security briefly crossed her mind. But it was the night before Christmas Eve, and it was only minutes before six. Security was likely on rounds. All entrances were secured at six o'clock. A lapse in vigilance could be expected under the circumstances.
The man in front of her shook his head. "I am… my roommate was murdered and…" His head started that fierce wagging again that prevented her from a descent view of his lips.
It was then that Merri noticed the blood-splattered on his T-shirt and the fact that he wasn't wearing a coat. It was freezing outside. Snowing! He had to be nuts! Or drug-crazed.
Merri's instincts shot into survival mode. Her right hand slid into her purse, her fingers going automatically around the canister of pepper spray. "Let's start with what happened." She gestured to his blood-splattered T-shirt with her free hand.
He looked down at himself, shuddered and then shook his head a third time. "My roommate was… back at my…"
This simply wasn't going to work. Merri waved a hand in front of his face to get his full attention. "Look at me when you speak, please."
A frown furrowed his brow. Dark brown tendrils of hair fell around his face. His hair was a little long and unkempt, as if he hadn't combed it today. And his eyes—they were so dark brown they were almost black. She blinked, surprised that she'd gotten that hung up that quickly with his eyes.
"What?" he asked, the demand etched in frustration across his brow.
"Why is there blood on your shirt and where's your coat?" She wasn't going to mention her inability to hear until absolutely necessary. This man had apparently come to the Colby Agency looking for help. She was the only one here, that left determining a course of action up to her. She consciously steadied her breathing in order to slow her heart and to keep the panic in check. She was a professional. A full-fledged investigator. She could handle this. Whatever this was.
As requested, he directed his full attention to her face and said, "My roommate was murdered early this morning. I evidently slept through whatever happened. When I woke up and discovered his… him, I called 911. The police hauled me in. I didn't get a chance to get my coat." He shrugged as if he didn't know what else she wanted him to say.
He was wearing lounge pants, she realized. And flip-flops. Damn. His feet had to be freezing. It was a long walk from the nearest precinct to here. And since she didn't see a pocket for his wallet, he'd likely been without the funds for a cab. "So," she surmised, "you've just come from the police?"
He nodded. "They didn't arrest me, but they said I was a person of interest or—" he looked at the floor, shook his head again "—is crazy. I didn't do anything. I wouldn't kill anyone. Not even my roommate who was a complete jerk most of the time, but he was my best friend." Those dark eyebrows drew together. "He's dead."
Though she'd missed part of his words, she got the point. She considered taking him to her office, but that probably wasn't such a good idea since she was here alone. She should call Ian or Simon. Simon Ruhl was another of Victoria's seconds-in-command. He'd been really nice to Merri from the beginning. He believed in her and she appreciated that more than words could say.
Okay. Do this right, Merri.
First step, get the client at ease.
"I'm Merri Walters," she said, "What's your name?"
"Well—" she gestured to a chair with her free hand "—Brandon, have a seat." Her fingers released the canister and she dragged a notepad and pen from her purse. She crossed to the receptionist's desk and leaned a hip against it, then prepared to take notes. "Let's start back at the beginning and you tell me exactly what happened. Every detail."
She had to remind him a time or two to look at her when he spoke. Most folks believed she was measuring whether they were telling the truth when she did this. Since he didn't ask why, she supposed he assumed the same. According to his statement, he'd awakened at six and discovered his roommate dead in the living room. After determining that he could not help his friend, he'd called the police. But they weren't buying his story, particularly since some of the neighbors had reported that he and his roommate, Kick Randolph, had an intensely volatile relationship. The roommate apparently owed Brandon a considerable sum of money. All in all, there was plenty of motive and no other suspects. The police had every reason to treat him as a person of interest.
Brandon threaded his fingers through his thick, dark hair. "Look, I don't know who killed him, but—" he looked straight into Merri's eyes "—Kick was into something. He was scared the last couple of days. The police won't believe me, but I'm telling you it had something to do with this CIA-type guy he'd covertly met with on several occasions."
"Can you be more specific about the man?" A CIA-type guy was a pretty broad description. Probably an analogy he made from the movies he'd seen. "Do you know the man's name or where he works?"
Brandon gave another of those adamant shakes of his head. "I only saw him once, and that was at night from across the street. Dark hair." He shrugged. "Medium height and build."
"What gave you the impression he worked for the CIA?" Merri understood the stereotype he meant, but she needed his interpretation.
"You know. Trench coat. Fedora. Starched trousers. The whole federal agent style. Like you see in the movies."
That was what she'd thought. She inclined her head and considered what he'd told her. "You said the man had dark hair. Did he have dark hair or did he wear a dark hat?" From a distance it would be difficult to distinguish one from the other, particularly at night.
Brandon blinked as if he didn't understand the question. "I…I think it was his hair. Maybe he wasn't wearing a hat."
"But you're sure you saw him at night…from across the street?" They needed to get the facts straight. No guessing.
"Definitely at night." Brandon nodded. "I was going into the building. We live in one of the old duplexes off the South Loop. The front stoop is fairly close to the street. He and Kick were having an argument outside his car.